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Growth pinching schools' facilities

The county has built 65 schools in a dozen years. But it's still not enough.

By JAN WESNER Times Staff Writer
Published October 12, 2007


Ruskin Elementary School principal Donna Ippolito considers black-and-white Nike running shoes an essential part of her daily outfit.

Ippolito says the shoes help her make the quarter-mile trek several times a day from one end of her school to another.

That journey takes Ippolito through a hodgepodge of old buildings, construction work and portable classrooms.

Ruskin has room for 656 students. As of Sept. 17, there were 1,137 kids enrolled. That puts it 76 percent over capacity and makes it the most crowded elementary school in Hillsborough County.

"There's not enough of you to go around," Ippolito said on a recent morning as she walked through the mazelike campus, giving hugs and asking students if they were having a good day.

Ruskin is typical of schools in southern Hillsborough County, where district officials say they've been pushed to the limit by development and the class-size amendment passed in 2002. Add to that outdated facilities that sometimes can't be renovated, such as a wing at Ruskin Elementary that had to be torn down and replaced.

Cypress Creek, also in Ruskin, is at 133 percent capacity. Sessums Elementary, east of Interstate 75 in Riverview, is at 127 percent.

Bill Person, director of student placement for Hillsborough County schools, said the biggest growth is coming along the corridor between U.S. highways 301 and 41, south from State Road 60 to the Manatee County line.

"That's the new New Tampa, as we call it," Person said. "We've been building elementary schools and high schools down there like crazy."

Overall, Hillsborough County has built 65 schools in the past 12 years. The number of elementary schools in the southern part of the county has doubled in six years.

And more are coming.

Cathy Valdes, chief facilities officer for the school district, said an elementary school is under construction in the Valencia Lakes subdivision. That school, called Elementary N for now, could bring relief to both Cypress Creek and Sessums. Redrawing the boundaries for those schools is also a possibility, Valdes said.

Sessums is also on the list to get a new wing. Similar wings have been built at several schools to accommodate the class size amendment.

Another elementary is planned adjacent to Lennard High School and the district hopes to build yet another in the Waterset development in Apollo Beach.

"We look at developers for land dedication and we also look at purchasing," Valdes said.

The recent slowdown in development could help, Person said, because property costs are on the decline.

Meanwhile at Ruskin Elementary, the lunch line is set up in the music room because the cafeteria was torn down. The music teacher pulls a wheeled cart between classrooms. There is no library - it was gutted and is being rebuilt.

And a classroom wing, built to replace one that had to be torn down, is expected to open next year, at a cost of nearly $4-million.

Jan Wesner can be reached at or 661-2439.

[Last modified October 11, 2007, 08:14:59]

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