News about school crowding is sobering
In a talk with parents, the superintendent says impact fees should be higher and that double sessions or year-round classes are possible.
By LETITIA STEIN
Published November 4, 2005
RUSKIN - The message from the chief of Hillsborough schools wasn't pretty:
The county faces a $360-million shortfall to build new classrooms in the next five years. Crowding might force some schools into double sessions or year-round classes.
School superintendent MaryEllen Elia didn't sugarcoat the situation at a town hall meeting at Shields Elementary last week.
And parents were equally frank in their comments to her.
Parent Robert Booth criticized schools and county leaders for pointing fingers back and forth about who is to blame for today's crowding crisis.
"Between the School Board and the County Commission, you're still not on the same page," said Booth, whose daughter attends Boyette Springs Elementary. "I'd like you to get together and do something for our kids."
"We have done something," Elia replied. "This (County) Commission has to address the issues of overcrowding not only in the schools but also on the roads."
Elia called school impact fees, which the county charges home builders, too low. Today's school impact fee in Hillsborugh is $196 per house.
In recent years, counties elsewhere in Central Florida have raised school impact fees to thousands of dollars per house.
Higher impact fees might not generate all the money that Hillsborough needs for schools, Elia said. But she said community leaders need to seriously address growth.
"It's a community problem," Elia said. "It isn't just the school district."
Funding shortfalls aside, parent Mary Kopstad questioned how school leaders are deciding which grade levels need additional classrooms.
"It seems to me that a lot of elementary schools are being built," said the Riverview mother of children at Summerfield Elementary and Eisenhower Middle. "But there are no middle schools for them to go on to, or high schools, before it's too late."
Elia explained that county and school planners work together to estimate the number of students and their projected grade levels when a new subdivision opens.
The school chief also warned that a statewide voter initiative requiring gradually lower class sizes will contribute to the classroom crunch in Hillsborough.
Parents also wanted to know how growth will affect school busing.
Elia said Hillsborough has money for the buses needed.
"Our issue is not the buses. It's the bus drivers," she said. "I'm recruiting right here."
That comment drew laughs from the nearly 100 parents and school employees in attendance.
But faces grew somber as Elia outlined the unpopular steps that school leaders might have to take if they can't find a way to build schools for students moving into the county.
Options could include holding classes throughout the year, or asking some students to attend school in the morning and others in the afternoon.
"I think most parents would say that double sessions is probably their least favorite option to solve the problem of growth," Elia said. "But we're going to have to, at some point, look at all the options."Letitia Stein can be reached at 661-2443 or firstname.lastname@example.org