School Board: Hillsborough’s south county ‘crisis is now a reality’

The fast-growing region faces school crowding and inadequate roads that limit new classrooms.
Sumner High School in Riverview, shown during construction five months before opening, is 700 students over capacity 13 months after opening its doors.
Sumner High School in Riverview, shown during construction five months before opening, is 700 students over capacity 13 months after opening its doors. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Sept. 29, 2021|Updated Sept. 29, 2021

Amber Dickerson, head of growth management for the Hillsborough County School District, said she knows what she sounds like.

“I may sound a lot like Chicken Little sometimes,” she told the 14 members of the county commission and school board sitting in a joint workshop Wednesday.

She offered the self-description immediately after reminding commissioners she had visited them a year ago and warned “there was a school capacity crisis brewing” in southern Hillsborough County.

“Unfortunately,” she said Wednesday, “this crisis is now a reality.”

Related: A school 'crisis' coming to south Hillsborough County: Inadequate roads

Sumner High School in Riverview, which opened 13 months ago, is one third, or 700 students, above capacity. Shields Middle School has 528 students in modular classrooms and would be 17 percent over its designed capacity without those portables.

The continuing fast pace of residential growth in south county is exceeding school capacity, Dickerson said.

Potential alternatives include putting students on double sessions, adding more portable classrooms or reconfiguring classroom use, such as turning an elementary or middle school into a facility serving pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

“I think that’s kind of shocking,” Commission Chairwoman Pat Kemp said about the overcrowding at Sumner.

A year ago, the school district asked the commission to participate in a public school siting task force to 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.

That task force never materialized, but county and school district staff members have worked together on the planned expansion of Collins Elementary School onto adjoining county land to allow joint use of the gymnasium, athletic field and track by the county parks department. Likewise, the district and county plan joint improvements on Nundy Road, including sidewalks and drainage, to serve Dorothy Thomas Exceptional School in Tampa.

But the focus Wednesday was the south county and the district’s long-term building program. It plans 15 new schools there over the next 15 years, plus the expansions of Wimauma Elementary and Spoto High schools and coverting the middle school classrooms at Sumner to high school use.

The problem isn’t school construction money. It’s transportation dollars. State law does not allow school districts to pay for off-site improvements that are not contiguous to the school property.

One of its proposed school sites, 61 acres off Bishop Road, does not pass muster because of the inadequate road network around it. The district also is proposing to build three schools on 100 acres east of West Lake Drive. Making use of both parcels will require improvements along Bishop Road and West Lake Drive — neither of which has shoulders or sidewalks ― and at their intersections with State Road 674 and U.S. 301.

There was a lot of talk of cooperation and collaboration, but county officials noted their long-term capital improvement program is looking at a $2.2 billion shortfall. Addressing some of the school district requests could mean delaying other needed road work, said Commissioner Mariella Smith, and permitting schools on inadequate roads “is a no-win situation.”

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It is important “to look at the processes that got us in this bind,” Smith said.

Toward that end, the county and school district staff plan to rewrite the inter-local agreement between the two agencies that governs siting of new schools. A potential change could include more closely aligning the district and the county’s long-term construction plans. A new agreement could be ready for the school board and commission to consider by the end of the year.