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Can county's schools handle growth?

To answer that question, the county and the school district team up to get a better handle on development and its effect on schools.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 8, 2002


BROOKSVILLE -- Conversations about proposed affordable apartments and upscale housing developments in Hernando County have raised a similar refrain: What about the schools?

Residents have been quick to note that few Hernando schools have adequate space to seat the additional students that new construction will bring. Recently approved state constitutional amendments limiting class sizes and providing for voluntary free prekindergarten will require even more classrooms.

Yet the county has no mechanism in place to even consider available school capacity when making decisions about whether to allow growth.

"That's critical to county taxpayers," School Board member Jim Malcolm said. "We've got two very large proposed developments on (U.S.) 41 that are going to impact our schools. . . . There's got to be some cooperation there."

County Commissioner Betty Whitehouse shares the concern.

"It's in the community's interest that both entities work hand in hand," Whitehouse said. "With development, what we have been hearing from the public for the two years I've been in here is, 'What are you going to do about the schools?' We want to be proactive with it."

With a new state law mandating closer coordination as a motivator, the work has begun.

County and school district representatives have met informally to discuss coming projects. By October, the two governments must reach an agreement that defines their relationship more formally in such areas as development and school site selection, construction and capacity.

The school district will have a seat on the county Planning and Zoning Commission. It remains a point of debate whether the position will be a voting or nonvoting member.

School Board members and commissioners also are considering whether now is the time to add a public schools element to the county comprehensive plan, which governs future growth and development. The ideas range from concurrency, which would tie development to school space availability, to requiring developers to provide land for school sites.

"I would certainly encourage our staff to look at the possibility of putting that in our comprehensive plan for the future," Commissioner Diane Rowden said.

The first matter at hand is the Planning and Zoning Commission representation.

County Commission chairwoman Nancy Robinson sent a letter Tuesday to her School Board counterpart, John Druzbick, inviting the board to name its representative earlier than the October deadline.

Robinson noted that School Board attorney Karen Gaffney had indicated the district's desire to have a voting member and said that would be possible if the School Board agreed, although an ordinance change would be needed. Druzbick said in an interview that he would like the district to have full Planning and Zoning membership.

"At least our opinions would be known by vote instead of just opinion," he said.

Board member Robert Wiggins agreed. But Malcolm was not so certain.

"I would like to discuss the pros and cons of whether (the school representative) should be fully vested in voting," Malcolm said.

School planning and accountability director Heather Martin, the likely designee, noted that the district had no such department until last January. Martin said she has been receiving reports from the county about rezonings and the like since then and plans to quickly get the district more involved in development matters.

"We need to be more aware and know how it is going to impact our schools," she said. "Five kids is an impact when you're 500 over your capacity already."

She suggested that the possible adoption of concurrency standards would be the topic of future talks. Local governments can create such guidelines, but only under strict controls.

County concurrency coordinator Paul Wieczorek eschewed the idea.

"From what we've seen in what other counties have done in creating a level of service, there's nothing but pitfalls in the process," Wieczorek said. "School concurrency is not a developed process."

He said further that a public schools element in the comprehensive plan is probably unnecessary because of the pending interlocal agreement.

A recent ruling in the 5th District Court of Appeal upheld the concept of a county using the schools element of its comprehensive plan in rejecting a rezoning, despite arguments that the element was vague and did not follow state concurrency laws.

Some commissioners and School Board members like the idea of at least looking into the inclusion of such an element in the local plan, which is currently under evaluation for amendments.

"It's definitely something we should explore," said Commissioner Robert Schenck, also a teacher.

"We have already identified some other areas we need to include in the comprehensive plan: historical preservation, as well as arts and culture," Whitehouse said. "This is another issue that needs to be addressed with the comprehensive plan."

Others are more cautious.

"I don't think the School Board should be allowed to inhibit growth," Wiggins said. "I tend to favor development as long as it makes sense. We should maybe work with the developers."

Longtime county planning director Larry Jennings welcomed the improved relations and was hopeful the results would be fruitful.

"This is going to help in several ways," he said. "All these things are coming together at a time when they can be debated and incorporated."

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com .

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