As students left, schools added seats
Why did Hillsborough spend almost $15-million building new wings for shrinking schools?
By LETITIA STEIN
Published October 28, 2006
TAMPA — Over the last two years, Hillsborough school officials have spent almost $80-million adding classroom wings to schools around the county.
The problem: At about half of those 36 schools, the district created many more seats than it had students.
Officials filled some of the excess seats this year by forcing hundreds of students to switch schools through boundary changes. Many more could face moves in coming months.
A St. Petersburg Times investigation shows:
-Hillsborough administrators knew before they broke ground on at least eight of the classroom wings that enrollment at those schools had dropped markedly. But they built them anyway, spending almost $15-million on construction.
-When they planned the wings, administrators assumed that minority students would choose to stay in schools outside their neighborhoods after busing for desegregation ended in 2004.
That didn’t happen. In fact, minority students fled suburban schools in droves, contributing to the excess seats.
-Incorrect capacity numbers for five of the schools that received wings made them look more crowded on district reports than they actually were.
School officials stand by their decision to build, saying it was based on solid projections. But three of the schools were targeted for boundary changes last year, and one is still under consideration.
-School Board members say they weren’t told about enrollment changes at specific schools as they approved each step in the wings’ construction. Several members said future projects will need a more thorough and public vetting.
“It’s time for us to talk about changing how we do business,” School Board member Candy Olson said.
Hillsborough’s troubles may offer a cautionary tale to other Florida school districts, especially those spending millions on new classrooms in order to meet the state’s tightening class-size restrictions.
Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia doesn’t think it should. She calls criticism of the district’s handling of the wings shortsighted, saying all of the unused seats will be filled once class-size limits are enforced in each classroom in 2008.
Administrators always knew they could fall back on boundary changes.“We could put kids into the available capacity the same way we’d have to do it if we built a new school,” said Jim Hamilton, a high-ranking administrator for special issues.
But school officials never warned parents. This spring, several parents unhappy that their kids were being moved from crowded neighborhood schools to schools with empty seats asked why so many of the underfilled campuses had new wings. They said they never got a straight answer from the district.
Linda Archer’s daughter was moved from Westchase Elementary, still crowded after a classroom addition, to Lowry Elementary, which also got a new wing. Even now, as her family gets used to the new school, she wonders if all the extra space was really necessary.
“People came to their own conclusion that somebody messed up in their calculation,” said Archer, now content with her daughter’s school. “Whether we had to move or not, I want to know why that money’s being spent.”
Elia said it’s good to have excess room in a district as large as Hillsborough, where new subdivisions are rising faster than schools in some suburban neighborhoods.
In fact, officials are now moving forward with plans to build classroom wings at 46 more schools.
A no-win situation
Hillsborough has built many classroom additions over the years. Officials say they are much cheaper than new schools because there is no need to buy land or pay for expensive extras like cafeterias and libraries.
In recent years, wings have replaced many portables on campuses. At its peak, Hillsborough had about 3,000 portables. Today, the number has dropped to about 1,900.
But when administrators began planning the latest round of wings, they knew the high-growth district was entering a volatile period. Class-size requirements were starting to tighten. And a federal judge had just ended three decades of busing for desegregation. No one knew what impact that would have on enrollment at individual schools.
Hamilton said the district was in a no-win situation. If children came to schools that lacked seats, the district would be blamed. But it also would be blamed if it overbuilt, he said.
“They weren’t choices about, 'Gosh, we should just build these empty rooms so we could irritate people by moving the boundaries,’” Hamilton said.
No one is taking responsibility for initiating the wings. Current administrators say they weren’t closely involved. Elia, then the district’s facilities chief, oversaw the planning but says the projects were identified before her time.
Records, however, show she signed off on most of the wings in the district’s long-term construction plan.
Already fewer kids
Even as district officials were planning the new wings, some of the schools slated to receive them were losing students.
But officials didn’t pull the plug on those projects, which could have saved about 90 percent of their cost. They also didn’t discuss the changing enrollment picture with the School Board.
Instead, at the meeting where four of the troubled projects received final approval, school officials talked at length about a $360-million shortfall in future construction dollars.
Elia, who had just been appointed superintendent, mentioned double sessions and staggered school schedules as options for dealing with overcrowded schools. Her warnings framed a yearlong lobbying effort and were instrumental in getting the Hillsborough County Commission to approve a huge increase in impact fees for schools, a gradual rise on new homes from $196 to $4,000.
Elia stands by her recommendation to build at the schools that were losing enrollment. She invokes class size and the need to provide room for school choice, the district’s plan for maintaining diversity after the end of court-ordered busing.
“If you have movement one year, that doesn’t mean necessarily that you jerk back and say, 'Let’s not do this,’” Elia said.
But what about the case of Kenly Elementary?
Before the School Board gave final approval for a new wing at Kenly, enrollment there plunged almost 130 students — a 21 percent decrease in a year. The 180-seat addition cost $1.5-million. It was one of the district’s smaller projects.
Today, Kenly is using 68 percent of its capacity and has more than 200 available seats. The district wants schools to use at least 90 percent of their capacity. If a school doesn’t meet that threshold, it can be considered for a boundary change.
Nineteen of the schools that have opened classroom wings since 2005 don’t meet the standard. A dozen are using 85 percent or less of their space. The rest are close to 90 percent, though it took a boundary change to get three to that level.
In Kenly’s case, school officials are considering pulling in students from nearby Schmidt Elementary, which is overcrowded.
District officials knew this was a possibility when they built the wing at Kenly, but never reached out to families at Schmidt.
“Why would I go disturb something that may not necessarily have to be disturbed?” deputy superintendent Ken Otero said.
Some School Board members say communication should have been better. And they were surprised when the Times told them about enrollment drops at some of the schools that got wings. They would have liked to have discussed the possibilities.
“It makes me uncomfortable when I hear that they added a wing and then they knew that the enrollment was declining,” School Board member Jennifer Faliero said.
Flight from suburbs
Looking back, it’s clear administrators made one mistake: They assumed the end of busing for desegregation would not significantly affect minority enrollment at the district’s suburban schools.
That belief was shattered on the first day of classes in August 2004, when minority students who had been bused to the suburbs flooded schools closer to their homes.
“We anticipated more of the youngsters remaining at their schools,” said former superintendent Earl Lennard, noting that many of the students who were being bused for desegregation initially told school officials they intended to stay put.
But in school districts across the nation, the end of busing had prompted rapid resegregation. Some School Board members now acknowledge they should have seen it coming in Hillsborough, where several suburban schools slated to get wings saw their population of black students decrease sharply.
Does that mean the board would have reconsidered some of the wings?
“Hindsight is wonderful,” said School Board chairwoman Carolyn Bricklemyer, who said things weren’t so clear then.
“Looking back on it … I don’t know that I would have said yes.”
The roomy northwest
So far, the area hardest hit by the fallout from the new wings is northwest Hillsborough, where a high concentration of schools with available room were sitting next to crowded campuses.
In 2004 and 2005, the School Board approved wings for five elementary schools — Bellamy, Lowry, Morgan Woods, Town and Country and Woodbridge. With the exception of Bellamy, every one ended up with enough excess seats to be put on the list for boundary changes.
The district’s decision to build a new school in the area may have exacerbated the problem.
Davis Elementary opened in August 2004, drawing heavily from surrounding schools. School officials expected to siphon off more than 200 students from Lowry and similarly large numbers from Dickenson and Westchase elementaries.
But the impact reverberated to other schools, including Morgan Woods, Town and Country and Woodbridge. All had new wings under design.
“You had double relief for the community,” said Bill Person, now the district’s general director for pupil placement but then a school principal.
Today, Morgan Woods is using 71 percent of its seats. Town and Country stands at 74 percent. Woodbridge is using just 68 percent of its capacity, though school officials say it would be full after a boundary change this year if an apartment complex hadn’t converted to condos and driven families with children away.
School Board member Susan Valdes, who represents the area, remains worried about the excess capacity in the northwest.
“That’s a concern that we don’t have the students to fill all those seats,” she said.
School officials try to focus on positives. They say some of the excess space is being absorbed by classes for exceptional students, who need more room. And some schools have set up full classrooms for supplemental courses like art, a luxury that doesn’t exist in crowded schools, where art teachers have to push carts from room to room.
When planning classroom wings, district officials said they look at more than individual schools. They may need space in the region, but have room to build only on certain campuses. They say it’s more cost effective to add a few extra classrooms now, even if some aren’t needed, than to come back and build them later.
“You’re much better off anticipating a scenario where you have more than enough,” Elia said.
That’s little comfort to William Ferreras, whose third-grade son was forced this year out of Bellamy Elementary, crowded even after receiving a new classroom wing, to help fill seats at Woodbridge Elementary, which got one, too.
“I didn’t think it was fair,” said Ferreras, who remains skeptical that growth justified the addition of space to Woodbridge. “If they were expanding anyway, they shouldn’t have to make these changes.”
Full? That was mistake
Those involved in school planning say enrollment projections are at least as much art as science.
So in addition to the projections included in the long-term construction plan sent each year to the state, the district monitors enrollment at every school.
The two measures haven’t always matched up.
The Times found large errors in the district’s internal capacity report in 2004-05, when many of the classroom additions were moving from the drawing board to construction. The mistakes made five of the schools that ended up with a significant number of unused seats look more crowded than they actually were.
Riverview Elementary, for example, appeared on the internal report to be filling almost all of its 665 seats at the beginning of the 2004-05 school year.
But the report failed to account for the 300 seats added previously to Riverview, school officials acknowledge. The school actually was running at 68 percent of its expanded capacity even as the school district approved the addition of 10 classrooms.
Mistakes made Morgan Woods and Town and Country appear full. In fact, both had breathing room. Mabry Elementary and Crestwood Elementary looked hugely crowded. Correct counts would have shown their space needs weren’t so critical.
School officials said the mistakes weren’t big enough to make a difference. The school district had class size coming, and its long-term construction plan contained correct information.
Elia stands by all the wings, even the one at Riverview Elementary, which today has close to 400 excess seats.
She said there is growth all around Riverview, which is being eyed for a boundary change to draw students from crowded Sessums Elementary.
“I think that you would say right now that the decision to put a wing at Riverview was enlightened,” Elia said.
Karyn Kasnik’s two sons attend Sessums. The school’s reputation helped guide her decision to buy a home near the school in the Rivercrest subdivision.
Even if her children don’t have to move, she would like to be told the possible impact of a new classroom wing long in advance.
“I think that it would make me stay involved,” Kasnik said. “So I wouldn’t be blindsided.”
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.