Hillsborough needs to close schools now | Editorial
Savings could benefit students and taxpayers alike.
People look at maps displaying potential Hillsborough County School District boundary changes before a meeting at Middleton High in Tampa on Jan. 9.
People look at maps displaying potential Hillsborough County School District boundary changes before a meeting at Middleton High in Tampa on Jan. 9. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Feb. 16

The Hillsborough County School Board is expected to decide this month whether to close several half-empty schools and reassign thousands of students to make better use of existing facilities. This is a modest, necessary and overdue step that could improve academics and serve taxpayers alike. While many see this as a difficult decision, it’s actually an obvious and sensible one.

The boundary changes are intended to save the cash-strapped school system much-needed money. Suburban growth and expanded school choice have put new financial pressures on this large, sprawling school system. Not surprisingly, parents, board members and community leaders have pushed back, questioning how sweeping the boundary changes need to be. Many also complain that schools in heavily Black and Hispanic neighborhoods were disproportionately targeted for closure.

A district consultant presented several options that would close between three and seven schools and partially close several others, affecting up to 24,000 students. A fourth option, which Superintendent Addison Davis recommended early this month, would close five schools, phased in over several years, and affect about 15,000 students.

But even Davis’ scaled-back plan drew board opposition Monday. Never mind that one-third of Hillsborough’s schools — 83 in total — operate at or below 70% capacity. Or that only a handful of those schools expect serious enrollment increases in the near term. Or that Hillsborough has fewer students today in traditional public schools than it did in 2018, thanks to the increasing popularity of charters.

If anything, Davis’ plan should be a starting point for finding more campuses to consolidate. The schools he selected make sense; four of five operate at half-capacity. None are better than C-graded schools. And many parents living near them have already voted with their feet, choosing to send their kids elsewhere. But Hillsborough has dozens of schools operating at about two-thirds capacity, leaving plenty of room for further consolidation. These proposed cutbacks are hardly radical; stopping wasteful spending is what this exercise is all about.

The concessions Davis made — limiting school closings, phasing them in and grandfathering some children, for example — give the board political cover to be ambitious about right-sizing the school system. The anticipated savings under Davis’ plan, about $14 million annually, is far below the $31 million in savings under one consultant’s option. Davis was right to propose selling or leasing some unneeded school facilities. The money saved through consolidation can not only strengthen the balance sheet, but also strengthen academic and support services for those reassigned to struggling schools.

The district could have allayed many lingering concerns by providing clearer answers earlier about how consolidation would impact families, neighborhoods, the district’s budget and fair access to quality educational opportunities. Some critics have suggested that the district postpone this decision another year. We see no value in that. It won’t take the district a year to clarify how consolidation could enrich those wallowing in empty schools. And it makes no sense to keep these campuses open a day longer than necessary. The district needs to rebuild its finances for public schools to compete, retaining those precious dollars now flowing to charters. That starts with wringing more efficiencies from the system.

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Hillsborough will host a new round of community meetings beginning Monday, with votes on any closures and boundary changes scheduled for Feb. 28 and March 9. We understand the association that residents have with their neighborhood schools, and the sacrifice that some families face. But the focus here needs to shift from where the schools are to what the schools are.

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.