Hillsborough County to get new schools

09/05/12 Janelle Irwin
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A coalition of Hillsborough governments heard plans to build some new schools in the county over the next decade. Lorraine Duffy Suarez, general manager of growth management and planning for Hillsborough County Schools said at a Council of Governments meeting today that the schools will go up where there is the most need.

“On a quarterly basis I meet with staffs from all four governments and the planning commission. We discuss our enrollment trends, we discuss development trends, where activity is occurring, any type of data related to residential population growth, we discuss at our quarterly meetings.”

The first new school is slated to open for the 2014-15 school year. It will be a K - 5 elementary school next to Lennard High School in southern Hillsborough County. Another three elementary and two middle schools could open over the next twenty years. Suarez said the projected openings come despite a study that shows Hillsborough County school enrollment has stayed the same for some time.

“Those capital outlay projections have shown that there’s going to be a decline over the years. We’re not entirely sure that that’s really the way it’s going. Our enrollment has been flat for the last few years.”

But there are factors that explain how enrollment looks down even though population growth is up. April Griffin, a Hillsborough County School Board member, said a lot of students are leaving traditionally run public schools under her purview in favor of privately run, but publicly funded charter schools.

“We have four different charter schools in the Temple Terrace area that are drawing students from those schools. Now realize, those are parents who are applying for the charter schools, going through the whole application process. And when you think about what makes a school successful, it’s the teachers, it’s the parents, it’s the community – these are parents who would otherwise be engaged in their children’s school now going to a charter school. So, then you get this imbalance of parental involvement at the schools which causes some issues.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist claimed Temple Terrace has long struggled with their schools. He suggested looking into a radical change to public education that would allow localities to take control of schools in their city. From there, elected officials could decide how to run them without input from the county school district.

But Temple Terrace Mayor Joe Affronti said the city has already been working with the school board to improve its schools. He used Greco Middle School as an example because the school has steadily improved after implementing a science and technology program.

“The perception was, Greco was not a good school so consequently, a lot of our kids that could have gone to Greco went outside of Temple Terrace to attend other schools – private schools or whatever – and it left a lot of empty seats so kids were brought in from everywhere and there were some problems at Greco. But now, the STEM program created a real good demand.”

Temple Terrace isn’t in an area where officials plan to build new schools, but they will still benefit from another problem the Council of Hillsborough County Governments is working on.

“This plan provides for major maintenance - $96,674,299.”

That was Hillsborough County School’s chief facilities officer Cathy Valdes. According to her, schools in the district are in desperate need of new air conditioning units and roof repairs. The basic maintenance is something Valdes said has been neglected to make way for improvements to curriculum and building additions to older schools because money that used to be given to school districts called Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO, isn’t there anymore.

“We haven’t seen any for several years, the PECO (Public Education Capital Outlay) dollars have been going to charters and to universities. But, as you know, the property taxes – fewer dollars being collected there so that impacts our capital dollars as well.”

The district is also trying to manage a billion dollar debt.

“So, two thirds of the money that we take in for capital is paid to debt service – one third we get to keep.”

Valdes said the major maintenance project will be paid by property taxes. New schools will partially funded through impact fees which are charged to new developments to help fund public services. The plans to build new schools and repair old ones are still tentative. The school board will adopt a final plan on September 11.

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