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School growth hits wall
Hillsborough predicts a possible drop in enrollment.
By LETITIA STEIN
Published June 28, 2007
TAMPA - Hillsborough schools could easily slide into declining enrollment this fall, an extraordinary swing after almost a quarter-century of growth.
During the last school year, an unusually large number of students left Hillsborough's public schools, with high schools seeing the greatest losses.
That has officials projecting virtually flat enrollment - at most - when classes resume in late August.
"We are projecting flat growth, with the possibility of slipping into a decline, " said Cindy Wood, who oversees student enrollment counts for the district.
That's a new scenario for school officials, who have fretted in recent years about how to pay for all the new classrooms needed to house the thousands of additional students that kept showing up.
Now the district is taking a hard look at its construction plans.
"There will be projects delayed and deleted, without a doubt, " said Cathy Valdes, the district's chief facilities officer.
The school district could be something of a canary in a coal mine, feeling changes in the economic winds that are not yet fully understood.
During the 2006-07 school year, Hillsborough netted a loss of nearly 4, 000 students, a midyear drop far steeper than normal. Only elementary schools grew overall, picking up about 900 students.
Those gains were offset by the loss of about 800 students at the middle school level. Enrollment also fell at almost every high school. Plant City High School logged the greatest drop, losing about 325 students.
School officials expect some declines during the year. High schools, for example, have dropouts and early graduates. But officials are puzzled by the magnitude of last year's losses.
Withdrawal records indicate many of the children leaving Hillsborough's schools planned to attend another public school, but in a different county or state.
School officials wonder if property taxes and insurance costs are chasing families away, or whether fewer major companies are moving in, which means fewer employees bringing children.
Hillsborough found that many of the departing students were in the sixth and ninth grades.
"That's the beginning of their middle school careers and their high school careers, " said Wood, the administrator who follows enrollment. "Maybe parents are saying, 'Look, that will disrupt my youngster a little bit less.' "
State trends are not encouraging for a rapid return of Hillsborough's growth. Pinellas County is talking about closing schools after three years of declining enrollment.
The declines were also dramatic in South Florida. The Palm Beach County school district is going so far as to run 30-second television spots that try to convince families to stay.
Hillsborough hasn't experienced a year-to-year enrollment decline in almost 25 years. But the growth falloff is changing the district's long-range construction plans.
Valdes, the district's facilities officer, said it's premature to identify which projects could be stalled. Officials have extensive plans to add classroom wings to existing schools and to build several campuses in the coming years. Some construction still may be needed to meet class size caps.
Hillsborough has hired an outside demographer to help guide building plans, Valdes noted. They will be vetted publicly later this summer.