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Enrollment changes could cancel new school construction
Correction: The enrollment numbers in this story are incorrect. The Hillsborough school district is projecting flat enrollment for the coming school year, and slow to moderate growth for the next few years.
By MIKE BRASSFIELD, Times Staff Writer
Published July 31, 2007
TAMPA -- A couple of years ago, Hillsborough school officials were so worried about overcrowded campuses that they talked about double sessions, a year-round school calendar, raising taxes and bringing in more portable classrooms.
But this school year, enrollment will likely drop by nearly 4,300 students -- an extraordinary reversal after nearly a quarter-century of unstopped growth.
The main reason for the change: Families are avoiding Florida because of the rising cost of living here, officials say.
"The last couple of years, with insurance rates and housing costs, we aren't as inexpensive as we used to be," said Jim Hosler, a demographer hired by the school district to examine enrollment trends.
On Monday, the Hillsborough School Board learned that enrollment is expected to fall from 187,205 students last year to 182,910 this year. Board members also heard their demographer's forecast of slower growth over the next several years.
So today, they're expected to vote on a plan to scale back the district's school construction schedule -- canceling a planned high school and two elementary schools, and delaying two middle schools.
"We won't need another high school for 20 years" after two new high schools open in 2009, said Cathy Valdes, the district's chief facilities officer.
School districts all over Florida are losing students. Last year was the third consecutive year that fewer students showed up statewide than were expected.
Building still needed
Pinellas County faces what could be the steepest decline in its 95-year history and may close a handful of schools next year. Its student population has fallen three years in a row.
But Hillsborough, the eighth-largest school district in the country, isn't used to this. The last time it didn't grow was 24 years ago, when enrollment dipped by 525 students in 1983.
Nevertheless, Hillsborough will still be building plenty of new schools and adding wings to existing ones. More construction is needed to meet class size caps and take the pressure off crowded schools in some parts of the county.
Besides opening four new elementary schools in August, the district plans to build six more elementary and two middle schools through 2011, according to the proposal the School Board is to vote on today.
Two high schools are slated to open in 2009 -- one on Lutz-Lake Fern Road in northwest Hillsborough and another at a three-school complex along Interstate 4 in Dover.
All told, the district plans to spend $314-million in tax money to construct those schools, add eight classroom wings to existing ones, and remodel 24 other schools, said Valdes, the district's facilities chief.
However, the district will cancel another high school that it had planned to build by 2011 somewhere in north Hillsborough to relieve pressure from Chamberlain, Freedom, Gaither and Wharton high schools.
Decade from a boom
Officials will likely cancel elementary schools in New Tampa and Thonotosassa that were to open in 2011 and 2012, according to the district's latest forecast.
They'll also postpone middle schools in the southern and eastern reaches of the county -- from a planned opening date in 2010 to sometime between 2012 and 2016.
In another decade, though, expect another boom -- an echo of the original baby boom.
Student enrollments should start to rise dramatically again as baby boomers' grandchildren walk into kindergarten classrooms, predicted Hosler, the district's demographer.
The district's long-range plan calls for adding 20 more elementary schools between 2017 and 2027.
Said Hosler, "There is a large freight train of schoolchildren coming your way."