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Surging enrollment forces district's hand

The next few weeks could see the School Board make important - and potentially controversial - decisions to reduce class sizes.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 12, 2003


J.D. Floyd Elementary School, built for about 900 students, became Hernando County's most populous elementary school last week: 1,041 children and growing.

The school added three portable classrooms earlier this year, but easily could use another, principal Janet Yungmann-Barkalow said. It qualifies for another fifth-grade teacher, as four of the six classes have 34 students.

Second-grade classes average 28 students, Yungmann-Barkalow said, while the third- and fourth-grade averages hover around 30 per room.

Things are not as bad as a few years back, when Floyd had 1,256 students, she said. But the staff is at the edge of coping, facing such problems as a lack of time to grade papers and tests.

"We've been together a long time. They do it out of loyalty and responsibility," the principal said. "But we're hoping for some relief with a new school coming in or rezoning."

The Hernando School Board, which has tossed about ideas to solve crowding in this growing district of 18,251 students for much of the year, is about to get serious in the coming few weeks. In addition to continuing efforts to purchase three properties for new schools, the board also plans to discuss the viability of adding wings to existing schools and redrawing some school attendance zones.

If decisions come quickly, as most board members would like them to, changes could be evident as early as August.

"Everything will be contemplated," board Vice Chairwoman Sandra Nicholson said. "We've been very open about looking at every option."

The administration plans to begin making reports to the board by mid February. Board members said they expected to move rapidly with some short-term solutions, but noted that the full range of answers to district crowding will take longer.

"This is going to be the topic du jour for the next two years," board member Gail David predicted. "The challenge is, how do you come up with the money to solve the problem?"

The first workshop is scheduled for Feb. 18.

Facilities director Graydon Howe said he is recommending construction of a $1-million, six-classroom wing at Chocachatti Elementary School, a school the district completed two years ago.

Central High School and Powell Middle School also have room to add classrooms, Howe said. Such additions, in conjunction with the opening of a new high school in the fall, could stall the need for more new schools for a while, he said.

They also could be more cost efficient than new construction, he added.

"The objective always is, before you go and build new, always look at your alternatives," Howe said. "You typically have all the infrastructure in place (at existing schools), so you get more bang for your buck."

A planning team also has taken a preliminary look at redrawing attendance zones to ease crowding, planning director Heather Martin said. Some schools, such as Moton, Chocachatti and Eastside elementary schools, can handle more students. Others, such as Floyd, are bulging beyond capacity.

Parrott Middle School also has fewer crowding problems than the other middle schools, which are hundreds of students above capacity. The district expects that the opening of Nature Coast Technical High School will ease the crunch at Springstead and Central high schools.

Some answers are easy, Martin said. For instance, the district is looking seriously at assigning children who move to new subdivisions along U.S. 41 south of Brooksville to the less crowded schools.

Other actions could prove more controversial.

For instance, David has recommended that the board increase the enrollment by 100 at Chocachatti, a magnet school with attendance caps, to help the more crowded elementary schools.

The district also is looking for ways to fill the seats at Eastside and Moton, where enrollments are below 700. That could mean some children will be assigned to different schools next fall.

One likely candidate to lose students is Brooksville Elementary.

"If we have underenrolled schools, we really have to look at doing some shifting," board member Jim Malcolm said.

Any redistricting effort is likely to be unpopular, Nicholson acknowledged. Families often have expectations of attending a specific school, or complain that their children are moved for space concerns.

But the district should use all of its current space before it asks taxpayers to support even more construction, she said.

The district has no revenue source for new construction, even as it makes plans to build a 1,400-student kindergarten through eighth-grade center in Spring Hill.

Board members have said they plan to ask voters to approve another sales tax to support school construction, most likely in 2004. The current half-cent tax, used to build Nature Coast Tech, expired in December.

In the meantime, Malcolm said, the district might have to borrow money or float bonds to pay for the short-term projects. The board also might pluck the money from its capital improvement budget, and then cancel other items on the list, he said.

Board member Robert Wiggins said he would consider either idea, because the school crowding problems must be addressed.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures," he said.

The school distict is projecting that by the 2009-2010 school year, there will be upwards of 24,000 students in the Hernando County school system. David said it will be interesting to see how the board, made up of five strong personalities, will come to a consensus and then put forth a unanimous front to the public as it seeks support.

"We have a real problem right now, and not just with the crowding we're facing right now, but the class size reductions (approved in November by Florida voters) are coming," she said. "The board has to get united behind some position. If we're fractured, it won't work."

Malcolm said the board has no choice but to act. Crowding has been a problem since he joined the board a decade ago, he said, and even the introduction of two middle schools, two elementary schools and a new high school during that time have had only minimal impact.

If the situation gets worse, he said, the district might have to fall back to adding classrooms one portable at a time.

"It isn't the best situation," Malcolm said. "But it's a reality. We're at a point where we can't build fast enough to accommodate students. It's something we just have to deal with."

-- 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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