Hillsborough wants more magnet schools, despite their cost

Tuba player Chancellor Jackson, 15, of Blake High School, performs in Tampa's Gasparilla parade in January.The Hillsborough County School District spent $655,092 last year to bus 411 magnet students each day to Blake, where the arts magnet includes band. The district's total magnet busing bill was $8.7 million. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
Tuba player Chancellor Jackson, 15, of Blake High School, performs in Tampa's Gasparilla parade in January.The Hillsborough County School District spent $655,092 last year to bus 411 magnet students each day to Blake, where the arts magnet includes band. The district's total magnet busing bill was $8.7 million. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
Published Aug. 7, 2017

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins looked at his network of magnet programs, including their $8.7 million busing cost, and came to this conclusion: Let's do more of it.

Far from wanting to phase out magnets as the cash-strapped district labors to save money, he wants to see more specialty programs in the inner-city schools and a new generation in the far-flung suburbs.

"It's time for us to rethink magnets altogether, and all schools altogether," Eakins said last week. "We want to start to think intentionally about the future of our kids."

District officials spent months working out the cost figures so they could evaluate the return on investment they were getting at 29 mostly urban schools.

SEE THE REPORT: What it costs to bus 7,000 kids to magnet schools

READ THE GRADEBOOOK: The talk of Florida education

Since the 1990s, Hillsborough has used magnets as a method of voluntary desegregation. The idea was twofold: To attract white students to schools in largely minority neighborhoods, and to motivate students of all races with courses of study that piqued their interest.

The offerings, which began with sciences and the arts, have grown to include International Baccalaureate and two single-gender middle schools. Busing is offered at all schools in a complex system that uses four transfer stations.

Trips begin as early as 5 a.m. and last year cost an average of $1,248 per student, nearly double the standard $703. Pay alone for magnet drivers cost more than $3.6 million. Fuel and other operating costs on the long drives exceeded $5 million.

On paper, some of the schools have shown disappointing results. The list includes schools that have C and D grades, are under 10 percent white, or are under-enrolled. In a few cases, all three are true.

But magnets are rarely discontinued. One exception is the animal sciences program at Cahoon Elementary, which is merging with nearby Van Buren Middle. The classes will continue, but the busing will not.

In releasing the cost report, district officials pointed out that if the magnets did not exist, many of the 7,000 students who use them would still need some form of transportation.

But they also acknowledged the $8.7 million total did not include the cost of busing students out of neighborhoods where they were displaced by magnet schools, as is the case for middle school students in East Tampa. Those students are bused to schools that include McLane Middle in Brandon and Madison Middle in South Tampa.

Despite the costs and mixed results, Eakins said he would rather strengthen the weaker magnet schools with additional programs than phase out the practice.

"I think you have to be very sensitive because it is choice," he said. "When we go in and have meetings at Cahoon, when we go to Lockhart (a C-rated elementary school) and Sligh (a D-rated middle school), everyone is very passionate. That's their choice." In suggesting the removal of that choice, he said, "you're going to create disenfranchisement that you don't want to create."

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Another challenge the district faces, he said, is that sprawling development is creating communities that are too far to make the urban magnets practical.

With growing competition from privately managed charter schools, Eakins wants to make the suburban schools true destinations. Blake High, the showcase performing arts school just northwest of downtown Tampa, could be joined by a second or perhaps a third arts school in East Hillsborough and New Tampa.

Eakins envisions a model like the one that exists for disabled students, where specialized services are available at multiple locations. He has asked principals to think of innovative programs they can offer.

Although some are years in the future, Smith Middle School in Citrus Park — which is about half empty — is launching an "academy of broadcasting and sports medicine." It's no coincidence that a short drive away, the Academica charter group is opening SLAM, a sports-themed school whose boosters include the musical artist Pitbull.

Westchase's Davidsen Middle School will roll out a dance program this year. And two new dual language programs are opening at Crestwood and Bellamy elementary schools with the goal of producing students who are biliterate in English and Spanish.

Parents provide transportation if the children live outside these schools' attendance zones.

But future programs might include a revised version of the magnet bus system. The expectation is that because the distances would be shorter, there would be a cost savings.

Eakins said the overall objective is to get families excited about the schools they choose for their children.

"That's what builds energy around the school systems around the country, where you have that kind of enthusiasm in all corners," he said.

"I don't really want to call any of our schools in the future neighborhood schools. I want to call them schools that attract families to attend."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or Follow @marlenesokol

Magnet school busing costs — 2016-17

The Hillsborough County School District spent nearly $9 million last year to transport about 7,000 magnet students to 29 schools. Here are three examples of the cost for individual schools:

Muller Elementary 97 4 $241,342 Performing arts
Franklin Boys Prep 374 8 $389,506 Single gender
Middleton High 372 7 $357,139 Engineering

Source: Hillsborough County School District