TAMPA — As the Hillsborough County School District prepares to spend $54 million to build new schools and classroom wings, dozens of existing schools are operating well below capacity.
The district's five-year capital improvement plan shows 25 schools, not including alternative schools or career centers, that are one-third to half empty.
Some have received D and F grades from the state — including Sligh and Van Buren middle schools, and Lockhart and Riverhills elementary schools.
Others have A or B grades and draw from comfortable suburbs. But, with the popularity of privately run charter schools, they are hurting for business.
Maniscalco Elementary in Lutz lost 101 students to charters in the last school year, with most of them going to Lutz Preparatory School and the long-popular Learning Gate.
In the Sulphur Springs area, charters have emerged as an alternative to Van Buren and Sligh, which have long posted disappointing grades.
New Springs Middle School, which was just approved for a five-year charter renewal, had 51 students last year who lived in the Van Buren attendance zone.
The three Hillsborough schools operated by Charter Schools USA accounted for some of the largest vacancies.
Winthrop, a Charter Schools USA school in Riverview, enrolled 110 students zoned for Brandon's McLane Middle, a D-rated school where the district buses hundreds of east Tampa students who have no neighborhood middle schools. Combined with other charter departures, McLane ran last year at 51 percent capacity.
Henderson Hammock, also in the Charter Schools USA group, took 72 students who were zoned for Smith Middle in Citrus Park. Woodmont, in Temple Terrace, had 70 students who would otherwise be at Greco Middle.
Charter schools in Hillsborough signed up about 15,000 students last year, but they are not the only reason for the vacancies. Another 17,700 students attend magnet schools, some of which are included in the list of under-used buildings. More than 5,000 students are home-schooled.
District officials cite several reasons for building new schools while capacity remains at existing ones. Anticipated building booms, pressure from neighborhood leaders and a desire to hold onto prized programs all go into the decisionmaking process.
"You have to be very strategic because you can't just say, 'Let's move all these kids here' and then move them again a year later," said Lorraine Duffy-Suarez, general manager of growth management and planning for the district.
Neighborhoods don't like to be divided, even when kids from one A-rated school are moved to another. Last year, officials had to tread carefully when they tried to fill Westchase's Davidsen Middle School, which is listed at 67 percent capacity, with some students from Farnell Middle School, which is at 105 percent.
In other situations, schools sit largely vacant while district officials wait for a planned housing development or apartment complex. Such is the case in the area around Citrus Park Elementary and Smith Middle.
Duffy-Suarez pointed out that the district tried to be conservative when it held off on building a new middle school in south Hillsborough. Classroom wings are being added to several high schools because it's difficult and expensive to buy the land and build a new one.
"I think we're taking a very measured approach as we go along," she said.
Some of the schools that appear largely empty on paper operate magnet programs that require more space than a conventional school. In other cases — such as the under-enrolled urban middle schools — the district is trying to improve academics and behavior with the hope that they will become more desirable.
The $54 million will be spent on completing work on the new Lamb Elementary School in the Progress Village area and on new classroom wings at Lennard, Alonso, Newsome and East Bay high schools. It also will be used to convert two elementary schools to K-8 schools — Tinker, at MacDill Air Force Base, and Sulphur Springs — and to start work on a new elementary school in southern Hillsborough.
Could there come a day when the district closes or combines under-used schools?
"I think long-term, everything has to be on the table," said superintendent Jeff Eakins. "But we have to do it with the right process and the right approach."
He said it's important to consider population growth, even when deciding whether to re-draw boundaries.
"Right now, we know that in elementary schools, we're growing," he said. "In high school, we're exploding. Middle school is where we see our dips. Some go to charter schools, some go to virtual (schools)."
That raises another issue Eakins has begun to address. Parents often tell him the biggest thing they fear is their children's entrance into middle school.
"We've already started a group to look at sixth-grade transition," he said. "I want to network with other superintendents. That's an area that we can really get better at."
Magnets, which are often enrolled below capacity and carry the additional cost of transportation over long distances, are another area district officials will explore as they seek to cut costs and balance the budget.
"We have to make sure we're aligning our magnets with what our kids are interested in," Eakins said.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @marlenesokol.