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District clipping school wings
School officials take a wait-and-see approach over falling enrollment growth.
By LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 15, 2007
TAMPA - Several classroom additions planned for Hillsborough schools won't be built because growth has all but ground to a halt.
School officials have called off plans to add classrooms at seven campuses, mostly high schools, after watching trends closely for a year. They are moving forward with another three dozen projects.
That means wings won't be rising at this time at Hill, Martinez and Walker middle schools and Bloomingdale, East Bay, Gaither and Sickles high schools. Also, Riverview High's wing was scaled back by four classrooms.
"We feel like we have saved money by halting the projects," said Cathy Valdes, the district's chief facilities officer. "If things turn around and all of our projections are not accurate, you can always pull it off the shelf."
She noted that school officials did not want to be criticized for overbuilding, as in the past. By calling off the projects before breaking ground, Hillsborough was able to save the bulk of the construction costs.
In building previous additions, the St. Petersburg Times found that the district moved forward despite enrollment declines at some campuses during the planning process. When schools ended up with more seats than students, officials called for painful boundary changes in adjoining neighborhoods with crowded schools.
Since then, difficult-to-predict population trends have become more erratic. Hillsborough was surprised last year when its student enrollment flat-lined after years of spiraling growth. The statewide trend set off alarms about the rising cost of living.
Since the start of school last month, Hillsborough administrators have closely watched estimates calling for almost flat growth this year. By Friday, Hillsborough counted about 191,600 students, almost 400 more than projections called for. The district expects to continue adding students over the next month.
While officials are relieved to hit their budgeted target, the numbers are still a far cry from the years in which Hillsborough added around 6,000 students each fall. The district has worked closely with a demographer to review its construction plans.
"We feel as confident as you can feel in a projection," Valdes said.
Despite scaling back on several of the wings, Valdes said, the district still expects to spend almost all of the $139-million budgeted for the three-dozen projects around the county. She noted that Hillsborough now can cover additional costs of moving outdoor courts and other expenses required to squeeze new buildings onto some campuses.
And Hillsborough has added one new wing to the list. Valrico Elementary will receive a classroom addition, in place of the one originally slated for Hill Middle.
Valdes noted that the district still is seeing considerable growth in the southeast county and is expecting a major spurt around Plant City. But things have slowed considerably around north Hillsborough.
It might not feel that way at Sickles High, which annually ranks among Hillsborough's most crowded schools. Still, the district is not moving forward with a classroom addition there.
School officials say the opening of a new high school in Lutz in 2009 should provide the relief Sickles needs.
After years of crowding, parents and students there are used to being flexible.
"In two years, who knows, they could change their mind again," said Susan Potier, vice president of the Sickles PTSA. "It sounds like a long time, but on a day-to-day basis, when it runs smoothly, and it does, I guess the kids make do."
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.