Hillsborough County officials pledge to tackle school safety, infrastructure needs together

Numerous safety concerns have surfaced amid a disjointed planning process and haphazard growth patterns.
Unidentified students walk to Davidsen Middle School in the Westchase neighborhood of Hillsborough Wednesday.
Unidentified students walk to Davidsen Middle School in the Westchase neighborhood of Hillsborough Wednesday. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Aug. 28, 2019

TAMPA — It wasn’t a long meeting, but it was a long time coming.

For the first time in recent memory, Hillsborough County commissioners, school board members, and city council members from Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City came together Wednesday at one table to start discussions on how each entity’s development planning can impact school safety and infrastructure for the better.

Numerous safety concerns surrounding school placement can no longer be ignored amid a disjointed planning process and haphazard growth patterns, County Commission Chairman Les Miller said.

To start the conversation, the county’s Planning Commission brought in Louisiana-based architectural designer Steven Bingler to show local officials the possibilities. Hillsborough County’s challenges aren’t unique, he said. Communities across the nation are having to adapt to urban sprawl as the population continues to boom, and that means spending more resources on transportation needs, affordable housing and public services — not necessarily their schools.

One way to leverage limited resources, Bingler said, is to turn schools into “nexus centers” of the community — incorporating needed facilities like public libraries or health clinics in the same building where students could take advantage of those resources, too.

“It’s not as hard as you think it is, especially if you do it hand-in-hand with the community engaged in the process,” Bingler told the crowd of local leadership. “Amazing things can happen — trust me.”

Bingler and his community-centered planning firm Concordia have helped communities integrate school classrooms into old barges, assisted living facilities, zoos and arts buildings including the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich.

Unidentified students walk to Davidsen Middle School in the Westchase neighborhood in Tampa on Wednesday.
Unidentified students walk to Davidsen Middle School in the Westchase neighborhood in Tampa on Wednesday. [ Times (2019) ]

But many on the panel echoed school board member Lynn Gray’s sentiments at the top of the meeting:

“I believe it is the will of the Hillsborough public school community that two things remain high on our priority list,” Gray said. “No. 1 is that we have an exact formula, if you will, for collaboration among mayors, city council, county commissioners and the school board, which will be critical moving forward with limited resources. And No. 2 is to find safer walkways and transport for our children to get to and from school.”

It’s the latter concern that spurred county commissioners into action after hearing hours of public comment at one meeting in early February.

Student transportation has been a boiling point for the county since December 2016, when the school board voted to eliminate courtesy busing for 7,500 middle and high school students living within 2 miles of their assigned school.

RELATED STORY: ‘Parents score victory in effort to make travel safer for Westchase students’

Last spring, two middle school students were struck by motorists and seriously injured while crossing a busy roadway to get to school. Stories of students walking along the shoulders of busy highways or dodging traffic without the aid of crosswalks or stoplights led commissioners to fold 52 new school safety projects and 127 school zone upgrades into their budget for next fiscal year.

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Commissioners also agreed to give Sheriff Chad Chronister about $1 million in county funding annually — enough to make Hillsborough the first county in Florida to assign crossing guards to help students walk to and from all 43 middle schools.

The state statute that determines whether a school is built in an area with “hazardous walking conditions” hasn’t been changed since it was passed in 1973, Superintendent Jeff Eakins said.

“That’s 46 years old, imagine how much traffic patterns have changed to accommodate all of the growth and new communities,” Eakins said. “Moving forward we would also love to see some partnership with our state Legislature on redefining what makes a hazardous pathway, because what was the norm then is not in sync with 2018.”

Locally, the group said it’s ready, as Temple Terrace City Councilman Gil Schisler put it, to “cross pollinate” when planning for future growth and development. The first step will be another effort to take an inventory of every available asset within the county — from barber shops to churches, Bingler said.

“Once you see what you’ve got, you can see if that’s what you really want or need,” he said. “It’s just that simple.”

If the state Supreme Court determines Hillsborough County’s voter-approved, one-cent transportation surtax is valid, Hillsborough County’s chief administrator of development and infrastructure Lucia Garsys said the county has already committed $15.7 million of the collected funds to help build “safe routes to school.”

County budget staff also plans to bring a proposal to the board on Sept. 5 for addressing school safety issues with extra county funds. A third option could be increasing the county’s school impact fees, which are currently about $4,000 per residential home — far lower than surrounding counties, she said.

Adjusting for inflation, population growth, surrounding community rates and other factors, Garsys said school impact fees could be increasing to as much as $7,500 to $8,000 for the average home.