Help may have no boundaries

School officials want an outside company to help create a zone in northwest Hillsborough.

By LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 12, 2007

TAMPA - For the first time in memory, Hillsborough school officials are seeking outside expertise to draw a school boundary, an often contentious process.

The district wants to bring in professionals to develop a model for attendance boundaries, piloting the approach around a middle school that is opening in northwest Hillsborough next school year.

School officials are responding to community demands to improve a process handled internally by former educators. The move follows a contentious overhaul of elementary school boundaries in the northwest part of the county about 18 months ago.

"The community has asked us to use some outside sources to help with our data," said Bill Person, general director of student placement. "It can only help the process."

School officials are asking School Board members to approve a contract Tuesday with SeerAnalytics to develop a model that would automate and standardize the boundary-setting process. The pilot project would cost $15,000.

The firm specializes in consumer research. It does a lot of work helping clients identify the right places for their facilities, whether it's a business or a YMCA, which is one of its largest clients, said Dino Eliadis, director of business development. He believes school boundaries could benefit from similar analysis.

"The problem that you are trying to solve here is very much like these corporate problems that we've solved," he said.

The firm has lined up an academic expert in Indiana who has assisted other districts with school boundaries. It aims to develop an approach that could be applied to other school boundaries in Hillsborough and beyond.

Hillsborough school officials have taken a stab at drawing the attendance area for the middle school opening on the Citrus Park Elementary campus. The new boundary could shuffle students around as many as five local middle schools - Walker, Martinez, Davidsen, Farnell and Webb.

The boundary proposal, shared with the community last school year, remains under review.

At meetings, parents complained that changing attendance boundaries would mean longer bus rides, educational uncertainty, dashed hopes for children wanting to attend the same school as older siblings, and will make picking up children nearly impossible.

Some of the affected communities were also involved in the spring 2006 fight over the district's plan to shift 1,500 elementary students among schools in the northwestern portion of the county. Officials came under attack for their lack of demographic expertise.

After School Board members approved a scaled-back version of the overhaul, the district quickly moved to improve its approach to boundary changes. It created a committee to discuss future changes in advance of decisions.

In the past year, school officials also consulted with a professional demographer regarding building plans. They hope to learn more by tapping outside expertise in the boundary-drawing process.

"It's going to be a mixture of art and science," said Steve Ayers, the school administrator responsible for developing boundary proposals. "You can't remove the human element."

Times staff writer Amber Mobley contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 813 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.