It’s been nearly a decade since Hernando County’s newest public school, Winding Waters K-8, opened in 2011. Since then, development and population influx in the county has ramped up.
School district enrollment has increased for the past couple of years after several years of decreases. Between 2011 and 2018, the number of county building permits issued for single-family homes increased from 150 to nearly 1,000.
Population growth already has pushed many of Hernando County’s schools, especially at the elementary level, toward the upper limits of what they can accommodate. And recently, county approval of more housing developments has coincided with the School Board taking a renewed look at impact fees, paid by home builders or their buyers for buildings and other infrastructure new residents will need.
The school district impact fee is $2,133 for a single-family home. But earlier this year, an outside consulting firm recommended that Hernando County nearly triple its fee to $6,352. On Tuesday, School Board members agreed to support the suggested rate. But they can’t enact it — only the Board of County Commissioners has the authority to approve it.
The school district may need that money soon.
Last year, a study commissioned by the district projected that with an average population growth rate, Hernando County will need two new elementary schools by 2024 and two more by 2034. But both Superintendent John Stratton and Jim Lipsey, the district’s planning, design and construction manager, said the district is unlikely to build at that rate.
“It will happen,” Stratton said. “It’s just not going to happen, in my opinion, in the next five years.”
For now, he said, the district will focus on adding seats to existing schools. Lipsey said the funding isn’t available for large-scale construction, and adding on to schools likely will be more cost-effective.
Exactly what shape that will take is “very much in the planning stages right now,” Lipsey said. He’s looking at three schools — Westside Elementary, John D. Floyd Elementary and Brooksville Elementary — for possible expansions, and he expects those expansions to be permanent structures. Those schools have the property space to accommodate new buildings and the increased traffic flow that would come with them.
“Permanent buildings, I think, give you the best value, although the initial cost is high,” he said.
The district has in the past used portables to increase seating. But all of the district’s portables will be past their life expectancy of 20 years within the next five years, Lipsey said, and making them conform to the state’s stricter safety standards could be more trouble than it’s worth.
For estimates of what new schools or expansions might cost, Lipsey referred the board to recent construction in Pasco County. Its last two elementary schools cost $21.9 million and $23.3 million, respectively, Lipsey said. A recent eight-classroom addition to Woodland Elementary School in Zephyrhills — about the scope of what the Hernando County school district would do at the three schools it has picked out — was $7.5 million.
Funds from the half-cent sales tax, which are set aside for capital improvements, cannot pay for capacity expansions, Lipsey said. They can only go to maintain and repair current structures. He hopes impact fees will pay for the bulk of school additions, he said, as the people creating the need for the buildings should be the ones to pay for them.
“Were it not for the growth we’re experiencing, we wouldn’t be needing additional capacity,” he said
Stratton worries that as schools make space for students they may lose “programmatic areas” — spaces used as testing labs or for career and technical programs or electives.
“Some of our schools are right there,” he said.
Capacity is no concern at the district’s middle schools, Stratton said. And while high schools could feel a squeeze in the future, expanding capacity there isn’t an immediate priority either.
Lipsey files a school capacity report for the Hernando County Commission for every proposed new housing development. They are based on schools operating at a 100 percent “level of service” — meaning the number of students a school can seat, not setting any room aside for those “programmatic areas.”
County commissioners have seen those reports regularly of late. They’ve recently approved several housing developments that could push the school district to bursting, and more developments are lining up for approval.
There’s the Trails at Rivard development, near Brooksville Regional Airport. The district estimates it will bring in 99 new students, nearly half of them in elementary school, while nearby Suncoast Elementary already is over capacity. That development was approved earlier this summer.
And there’s the expansion of Cortez Oaks, where 800 more homes are projected to bring in 211 new students, including nearly 100 at the elementary level. Nearby Pine Grove Elementary also is out of room. A new master plan for that development, which has been in the works for a few years, was approved earlier this summer.
A proposed apartment complex on Commercial Way north of Cortez Boulevard is set to come up next month.
Speaking to the School Board, Lipsey showed how the district could have drastically different outlooks for expanding capacity depending on what happens next with the impact fee. The current fee is half the rate the Board of County Commissioners set in 2005. In 2011, county commissioners voted to suspend the fee in an effort to stimulate the economy. When they brought it back in 2015, they did so at the new, lower rate.
Now it’s less than a third of the fee in neighboring Pasco County, which sits at more than $7,100. Lipsey on Tuesday estimated that the decisions to suspend the fee and bring it back at a lower rate left the district with $23 million less than it would have taken in if the 2005 rate held.
If county commissioners approve the new suggested rate, he estimated, the School Board’s impact fee balance in three years will stand at just under $30 million. If not, it will sit at $10 million.
“We might be able to do a classroom addition, maybe a larger classroom addition,” he said. "It certainly wouldn’t go a long way toward helping relieving our permanent capacity.”
School board members were unsure if expansions would be better than a new school, and Board chair Susan Duval said she didn’t want elementary schools to become “mega-sized.”
Lipsey said there’s still lots of exploring to do before a plan is set in stone.
“If money were no object,” Lipsey said in an interview, “the solution would be very easy.”