After years of stagnation, the Hillsborough County School District is turning shovels and opening doors to a generation of new schools.
First is Thompson Elementary School, which will accept its inaugural class this year. Along with increased security, new buses and full implementation of a curriculum based on the new Florida Standards, the school is a sign of change after a long stretch of fiscal conservatism.
Limited by a freeze on state capital funds and anxious to avoid teacher layoffs, the district held tight on spending during and after the recession. Home-building had slowed to a crawl, so there wasn't much need for new schools anyway.
But growth is picking up in the Ruskin area, encouraged in part by the prospect of the new Amazon distribution center.
Thompson is expected to receive 719 students, drawn from the area formerly served by Ruskin and Cypress Creek elementary schools, according to documents submitted to the School Board.
Milady Astacio, most recently the principal at Wimauma Elementary School, will be Thompson's first head.
An expansion is also planned at Lennard High School to accommodate south Hillsborough growth.
More new schools are planned:
• Lamb Elementary School, named for retired administrator and School Board member Jack Lamb, is expected to open in 2015 in the Progress Village area.
• A middle school will be built in Balm. Officials anticipate it will open in 2016.
• Meacham Middle School will open in central Tampa, serving a community that is expected to grow with the Encore urban renewal project. The target opening date is in 2018.
• A K-8 school is planned in the southern part of the county, also in 2018.
Throughout the district this year, families can expect a slightly more pronounced security presence and, for those who use the bus system, the first installment in a fleet of new buses.
Twenty school officers have been hired and trained in the first phase of a security system that the School Board approved, after a year of discussion, in response to the 2012 school killings in Newtown, Conn.
Like the officers who already serve 19 Hillsborough elementary schools, the new recruits will be armed but will not have arrest powers.
The long-term plan, provided the other three phases win approval, is to have these school district officers at all elementary schools.
The first wave of guards will be assigned to zones of schools. "They will become our subject experts in those areas," said Chief John Newman, of the district's Security Services Division. If the program is expanded, they can advise the district on where the need is greatest.
"We do not expect behavior to be much of a problem in elementary school," Newman said.
But the officers can, among their other duties, advise school officials on how to make good use of the locks, gates, cameras and other so-called hardening devices that were purchased and installed after Newtown.
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Sworn law enforcement officers already provide coverage in all of Hillsborough's middle and high schools.
Transportation, for which spending was a low priority during tight-budget years, is also undergoing an upgrade.
A national search is under way for a new general manager of transportation. At workshops in the spring, superintendent MaryEllen Elia announced changes in employee training and planned improvements to the repair facilities.
The board also approved the purchase of 100 Thomas Built buses, with the expectation of yearly purchases until the 1,400-vehicle fleet is brought up to date.
Committees are meeting to ease a shortage of bus drivers and to make sure drivers and school administrators have working plans to address student misbehavior.
Looking ahead, the district is working with a consultant as it also considers alternative fuels.
Contact Marlene Sokol at email@example.com or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol.