Will Hillsborough close schools? We have questions | Editorial
New boundaries and closures could affect tens of thousands of students,
People gather for a public meeting regarding Hillsborough school boundary changes at Middleton High School in Tampa on Jan. 9.
People gather for a public meeting regarding Hillsborough school boundary changes at Middleton High School in Tampa on Jan. 9. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 30|Updated Jan. 30

The Hillsborough County School Board is nearing a vote on what could be the most sweeping attendance boundary changes in the district’s 140-year history. The move could shift tens of thousands of students to new schools, save the cash-strapped district much-needed money and reshape the school system’s learning environment, especially for Black and Hispanic children.

But the decision-making process has frustrated parents, teachers, civic activists and School Board members. With a vote expected in weeks, the district still hasn’t offered a concrete recommendation for which students it should transfer and what schools it might close. Officials insist they would “repurpose” schools, not merely close them, but have offered no specifics of what would take their place. Public input, to now, has been limited, and many parents are in the dark about key details, such as whether their child would be allowed to remain at a school until they graduate to the next level.

The upheaval is aimed at better using space at scores of under-used campuses, a move necessitated by changes in demographics, finances and education policy that have only intensified in recent years. Nobody can argue that redrawing boundaries is unwarranted or premature. And the cost-cutting effort is politically essential if the district hopes to convince voters next year to approve an additional tax for everyday operations. The question is whether this plan goes far enough, whether the sacrifice will pay dividends in the classroom and whether residents will feel satisfied that their voices were heard.

As the district holds additional public meetings in the coming weeks, here are several issues to address:

Define the problem

More than one-third of Hillsborough’s schools — 83 in total — operate at or below 70% capacity, a number that’s exploded in recent years. And only a handful of those schools expect serious enrollment increases in the near future. While the district is larger today than it was five years ago, that growth is attributed to charter schools. Hillsborough has fewer students today (189,700) in traditional public schools than it did in the 2018-19 school year (195,000). Simply put, the district has too many students where it has too few schools, and too many schools where it has too few students. That problem is only expected to worsen unless something is done to consolidate these facilities.

A district consultant presented three options (aside from doing nothing). The most modest calls for three schools to be “repurposed,” a term the district uses to reflect that the buildings would remain in some sort of use. Options 2 and 3 would repurpose five to seven schools. The options, in various combinations, also consider shifting hundreds of slots away from several middle schools and Chamberlain High School. Between school closings and other boundary changes, up to 24,000 students could be affected.

The district said the new zoning plan was based on several criteria, including current school enrollment rates, population growth projections and proximity to other campuses. At first blush, several schools targeted on the list make sense. Just Elementary, in West Tampa, for example, has been half-full for years. So has Adams Middle School in Forest Hills and Monroe Middle School in Interbay. None of the 12 schools under consideration is more than two-thirds full (most haven’t been for years) and virtually all have relatively low “stay rates,” or the percentage of public school children who remain rather than seek other options. Most of the targeted campuses are also C or D-rated schools, hardly an attractor for boosting enrollment.

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But why consider only 12 schools when scores more are underused, with many at half-capacity and with equally low stay rates? Even under the changes being considered, one-fourth or more of the district’s schools could still be underused, with capacity between 60% and 80%. One scenario produces almost as many underused schools (60) as those (63) operating in the target range of fuller enrollment (along with another 77 that would be near or above-capacity). The district needs to maximize the potential for consolidating schools or explain why it is stopping short.

Justify ‘repurposing’

Officials have not said exactly what they intend to do with shuttered schools, saying only they would “repurpose some facilities to a use that benefits the community.” That could mean turning them into early leaning centers, vocational-technology institutes, administrative offices, housing or something else.

A laundry list of vague options is not good enough. The board needs to have some idea what these properties would become and how they would contribute to the school system’s academic mission. The public also needs to see the tradeoff and a plan for maximizing these public assets.

Officials said they wanted to hold off any talk about re-uses until the board decides on closures. That makes little sense; the two decisions are inextricably linked. What the district does with the schools is central to the choice on whether to close them. Does the district need all this space for work that’s being done elsewhere now? What would happen to huge, empty areas — cafeterias, playgrounds, ball fields — that still require maintenance? Are public-private ventures appropriate? What impacts would these new uses have on their surrounding neighborhoods?

Florida expressly authorizes school districts to dispose of unneeded property “in the best interests of the public.” Yet district officials insist they will not sell any schools, maintaining that Florida law requires school districts to give surplus facilities to privately-run charter schools. But that law includes the caveat that surplus property must be provided to charters “on the same basis as it is made available to other public schools in the district.” Hillsborough would be closing these classrooms, not making them available to other public schools, so how does the charter school requirement apply?

If board members oppose selling properties, and they aren’t legally restricted from selling, they need to fully explain how hanging on to the properties is beneficial to the district’s finances. Land prices are soaring in Hillsborough, especially in urban areas where many of the underused schools are located. With some campuses valued in the tens of millions of dollars, selling the properties could heavily augment the $132 million to $163 million the district expects the closures to save in unneeded capital improvements. And it would offload a recurring drain on the district’s finances and put property onto the tax rolls.

Answer public skepticism

Facing pushback from parents and board members, the district announced Wednesday it would delay any decision by at least two weeks. The new timetable adds another round of community meetings and postpones a workshop until Feb. 13 for board members to discuss a recommendation by Superintendent Addison Davis. A final decision is not expected until late February or early March.

Davis was smart to call for extra time to address a host of critical questions, from racial equity and cost savings to the rollout of the changes.

The 12 schools considered for closure are heavily Black and Hispanic. Just Elementary, for example, is 83% Black, while Morgan Woods Elementary in Town ‘N Country, is 81% Hispanic. The changes could fall the heaviest on Hillsborough’s minority families. But many students at these 12 campuses would also be headed to better schools. Some students, though, could be reassigned to C and D-rated schools. So what’s the plan for using at least some of the savings from consolidation — estimated at between $15 million and $31 million per year — to improve the academic environments where many children might end up?

The board needs these answers to make a fair, informed decision. And families need to know what they’re getting into. Many won’t like closing schools or sending their kids to new ones, but it’s important the bureaucracy appear transparent and competent and not treat children like numbers. (It doesn’t help that a document refers to one school considered for closure, the half-century old Morgan Woods, as “Morgan Hill.”) The district has time to address the skepticism head on, and it should work hard in the coming weeks to craft a solution that works for students, the school system and taxpayers alike.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.