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Schools without borders
The county lines are not a deterrent when the other school is more convenient.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK AND LETITIA STEIN
Published June 24, 2007
Sophomore Chris Stursberg, 15, lives in Wesley Chapel, but attends Wharton High School in Hillsborough County.
[Stephen J. Coddington | Times]
WESLEY CHAPEL - The Stursbergs live so close to the Pasco-Hillsborough county line that it just doesn't matter.
Not for work -- mom Lorraine commutes to an insurance job near the University of South Florida. Not for play -- son Chris practices swimming in Arbor Green and Land O'Lakes. And not for school -- Chris, 15, attends Wharton High in New Tampa, which is much closer to their house than his assigned school, Wesley Chapel High.
"I don't consider it a boundary," Chris Stursberg says of the county line, which is a literal stone's throw from his Meadow Pointe home. "A lot of my stuff is intertwined in the two counties."
Life does not simply stop at the corner of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and County Line Road for the people who live in Wesley Chapel to the north or New Tampa to the south. And the school districts, which define their existence by county divides, do their best to go with that flow.
Pasco, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Hernando counties have interlocal agreements that let families cross the lines, if there's space. The reasons can vary from medical emergencies to parents employed as teachers at a school to day care needs. And for more than 30 years, that has not been a problem.
This year, Hillsborough counted about 870 students who live in neighboring counties -- the vast majority about 630 from Pasco. Pasco enrolled 123 Hillsborough kids, as well as 171 from Hernando and 24 from Pinellas.
Pasco, which also sent 122 students to Pinellas and 13 to Hernando, is a net exporter. Its leaders, who can't seem to build schools fast enough, have no problem with the setup: The School Board approves a long list of transfers nearly every month.
"As long as we've got more going out than coming in, take them," Pasco School Board chairwoman Marge Whaley said.
Hillsborough, by contrast, is a net importer of students. Its leaders have graver concerns about whether the agreement will be worth the paper it's written on after too much longer.
"Particularly now with class size reduction, it's getting harder and harder to put anybody into any school," said Steve Ayers, Hillsborough's student assignment director. "What we see is more and more people are using it because people are living just across the border, and our schools are closer. But all we have left up that way that have room are Turner (Elementary), Bartels (Middle) and Heritage (Elementary)."
Both Wharton and Freedom high schools, for instance, are projected to surpass 100 percent of their capacity next year, with no relief in sight. Class size limits, which become classroom head counts in 2008, have forced Hillsborough to review its policies on out-of-country transfers.
"Once a school becomes overcrowded, and we no longer can meet class size reduction, can we allow the student to remain there?" said Bill Person, general director for pupil placement and support programs.
But is forcing the Pasco students out an answer?
Wharton High enrolls just 64 students from Pasco -- the equivalent of 2 1/2 classrooms. Freedom High counts another 38 Pasco students.
Though those are spaces that Hillsborough students can't access under the district's school choice program, district officials worry about creating new headaches if they end the transfer deal.
Where would they put the 46 Hillsborough students enrolled in Countryside Montessori Charter School, for instance, if Pasco sent them back?
"We may get some benefit on one side and then have a problem on the other side," Person said.
The Stursbergs certainly don't want to be sent back. They fill out the paperwork each year because Chris wants what Wharton offers - culinary arts and sports marketing programs -- plus what it doesn't -- the crowding issues that plagued Wesley Chapel High before Wiregrass Ranch High opened.
"At orientation ... the counselor said the school was overcrowded and mostly the kids would have to be on their own, " Lorraine Stursberg recalled. "I was like, 'Well, wait a minute here. This is what you get paid for.' I even looked at private schools. But I don't think you need to pay that much to get a good education."
Now Wharton is Chris' school, where he's halfway through his curriculum, as a member of the baseball and swim teams. And, Chris notes happily, he's so close to school he can race out the door 10 minutes before classes start and still get there on time, something he couldn't do at Wesley Chapel.
Save for the county line, it would be his neighborhood school.
"You're a hop, skip and a jump from these schools," Lorraine Stursberg said. The only thing is, "they're all in Hillsborough."
By the numbers, the campuses that families are most willing to cross lines to reach are charter schools, which districts have relatively little control over anyway.
A Lutz charter school, the Learning Gate Community School, with a focus on environmental education is the biggest draw into Hillsborough. The high-performing school pulls 71 students from Pasco.
Assistant Principal Sean Craven thinks that once families catch onto charter schools, which are tuition-free but have greater flexibility than traditional public schools, they're willing to travel to reach them.
"When it comes to a child's education, I don't think distance should ever be an issue," he said.
And sometimes miles matter less than how long it takes to travel them. From his old home in the Carrollwood area, Craven used to spend almost an hour fighting traffic to get to Learning Gate.
Now he lives in Pasco, along with about half of his faculty. And he can get to school in 15 minutes.
"There's so many back roads and ways to get here," he said, "even though we're talking about two different counties."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.