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District issues dire warnings about crowding

By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published February 15, 2004

Do the math, school officials say.

There are 67,000 students in Pasco County's schools.

Another 2,000 are expected to enroll every year for the next several years.

Portable classrooms now house 7,000 students countywide, enough to fill nine brick-and-mortar elementary schools.

And one school in the heart of Pasco County - Land O'Lakes High - is already so swamped with teachers and students that it has moved to a split-day schedule, with students and faculty attending in two shifts and classes in session from 7:30 a.m. until 4:45 p.m.

Add state rules requiring smaller classes, and the need for new class space keeps growing.

They are numbers that Penny for Pasco proponents think feed the argument for why a 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax is necessary now.

"If it doesn't pass, we are going to be on double sessions," board member Marge Whaley said, referring to a class-schedule plan that's been used in the past to accommodate crowding. "That's it. There is no more room, and we are not keeping up with growth."

The Pasco County School District does receive state and local money annually for new construction and capital improvements.

The current budget, for example, includes $104-million for capital projects. About $80-million of that is tied up in actual projects: $31-million for a new high school, $12.1-million for a new elementary, $2.7-million for the recently completed Pine View Elementary, $14.5-million for various maintenance, repairs and renovations, and other money for land acquisitions, parking facilities and districtwide equipment.

Another $24.6-million is encumbered to pay for debt service and other requirements.

Chuck Rushe, chief financial officer for the district, has said repeatedly that the district will build new schools, whether or not voters approve the Penny for Pasco sales tax initiative March 9; it has to because of the expected student growth.

But the projected $196.8-million in new revenues that would come to the district over the 10-year life of the Penny for Pasco tax would enable the district to build faster, keeping up with a population bulge more efficiently, with fewer chances for extreme crowding.

Crowding is more than a matter of physical space, according to school leaders. It is a matter of creating an environment conducive to sound learning and teaching.

Large schools, according to the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, are more likely to have higher rates of disciplinary infractions and poorer student achievement.

-Rebecca Catalanello covers education in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6241. Her e-mail address is rcatalanello@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 15, 2004, 01:15:45]


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