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A school ‘crisis’ coming to south Hillsborough County: inadequate roads

The school district raises the specter of crowded schools and even double sessions in the fast-growing area.

TAMPA — The Hillsborough School District expects to have $1.8 billion available for school construction and maintenance over the next five years.

But even with higher impact fees on new construction enacted earlier this year, and a voter-approved sales tax in 2018 that is projected to bring in $550 million over five years, the district says it faces the potential for overcrowded schools and even double sessions in the fast-growing south county.

The dilemma is not because of insufficient classrooms. It is because of insufficient roads. Six potential south county school sites, including four within properties already rezoned for residential development, are served by substandard roads or sit at the center of the undeveloped properties. By state law, the school district cannot spend construction dollars on roads that are not contiguous to the school property.

Tuesday, school district officials came to Hillsborough commissioners to ask for help because, under a prior agreement, the county must approve any school sites proposed by the district.

“At this time next year we will have to squeeze close to 3,000 new students onto existing campuses that are already overcrowded. We must solve this crisis,’' said Amber Dickerson, general manager of growth management for the school district.

Even if the school district can negotiate purchase agreements for the sites and the county can work out infrastructure upgrades from the developers, “timing is a problem. We need sites now,’‘ said Dickerson.

Additionally, none of the four parcels reserved in planned developments are large enough for a 50-acre high school, she said.

The district’s construction plan calls for building, on average, two new schools a year to keep pace with growth. The district just opened the newly built Sumner High and Belmont Elementary schools in the south county last week to in-person classroom teaching. Additions to Spoto High School and Wimauma Elementary are projected to open in August 2021. The plan also includes a new high school off Bishop Road in 2024 that is surrounded by substandard roads and approved neighborhoods also served by inadequate transportation, Dickerson told commissioners.

“At the end of the day, there are no current sites that have adequate transportation infrastructure to support a school in south county,’' she said, “and that is a problem we must address.’'

The dearth of appropriate school sites “translates to approved developments not being able to build,’' she said. And without a solution, the district faces overcrowded schools and the politically delicate question of putting schools on double sessions.

She asked the commission to participate in a public school siting task force that would include a school board member and school district staff, county staff, a county commissioner, the directors of the Planning Commission and Metropolitan Planning Organization and members of the development community.

“We have to come up with creative solutions. Either allow schools to be located on substandard roadways or find funding to develop the transportation infrastructure that is required to support schools,’' Dickerson said. “We should not make the decision to force students to attend overcrowded schools because transportation infrastructure is extremely underfunded.’'

Commissioners agreed to consider the task force request at an upcoming meeting, but not without aiming pointed commentary at the district.

“It’s interesting that for the first time ever this has been called a crisis,’' said Commissioner Pat Kemp, “and I really thought it’s been a crisis ever since I became a commissioner It’s very frustrating to look at this. I think it really indicates the system is broken.”

Commissioner Sandy Murman noted Hillsborough County’s transportation surtax remains in limbo, awaiting a Florida Supreme Court ruling on its legality. If the court rules against the county, voters likely will be asked to again consider the sales tax increase in 2022. Meanwhile, the school district has been collecting and budgeting its own sales tax revenue unimpeded.

“We don’t have it’‘ Murman said about a potential request to share future transportation dollars between the county and district.

If the task force is “being put together because you’re going to demand infrastructure dollars for transportation,” Murman said, “I think you need to seriously look at the situation we’re in here in Hillsborough County.’'

Commissioner Mariella Smith wondered why the school district, which reviews and comments on rezoning applications for planned developments, didn’t raise a red flag sooner during the county planning process, instead of signing off on planned developments that include inadequate school sites.

Dickerson said the district has few options since no area in south county has sufficient roads on which to build a school. Additionally, the district, historically, has not recommended denying a rezoning because concurrency requirements — connecting new construction to available infrastructure — don’t kick in until later in the process when neighborhood lots are platted. Developers are not required to designate a future school site in rezoning applications, she said.

Changing the county’s comprehensive plan or land development code might address that, she said, “so that we can have these difficult conversations earlier in the process.’‘

“The way it is written now,” Dickerson said, “we really don’t have much leverage to say, ‘No, we want a school site here. Specifically, right here.’ “

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