Pooling schools

As land dwindles, shared campuses grow. But so do traffic jams.

By AMBER MOBLEY, Times Staff Writer
Published December 9, 2007

TAMPA - It's like the buddy system when it comes to building schools in Hillsborough County.

Schools, pick a partner.

Fifty-one public schools are on shared campuses, a sign of economy as well as scarce land.

Nowhere do you find more schools on top of schools than in northern Hillsborough, where Liberty Middle School is teamed up with Freedom High, Bryant Elementary School sits next to Farnell Middle and Hammond Elementary School opened this year on the grounds of Walker Middle School.

Next year, Sgt. Paul Smith Middle School will open on the grounds of Citrus Park Elementary. In 2009, a high school will join the already-shared McKitrick Elementary and Martinez Middle campus in Lutz.

Educators tout cost savings and academic advantages. But traffic jams result, and the county is having to retrofit some of its roads.

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Evidence of how much traffic schools can generate exists on Gunn Highway, originally a two-lane road into the northwest Hillsborough countryside.

For the past few months, the county has been widening Gunn from just north of S Mobley Road to south of Ehrlich Road to accommodate a crush of traffic related to schools, a busy shopping mall and Veterans Expressway-bound commuters.

The road runs in front of Sickles High School, less than half a mile from the campus that Citrus Park and Smith Middle will share. Across the street, Citrus Park Christian School adds more traffic to the mix. The shared Walker-Hammond site sits just 3 miles north.

More than 40,000 vehicles use that stretch daily - 10,000 vehicles higher than Gunn Highway's intended capacity. School buses, parents' minivans and student cars converge at a snail's pace, and sometimes a bumper-to-bumper halt.

"Normally there is an alternate route we can suggest that people take," said county spokesman Steve Valdez. "But there's no alternative. There is one narrow little roadway that services that whole northwest region."

The construction project, which is scheduled to last until mid 2009, is making school buses late in the morning and afternoon.

Walker mother Phuong Nguyen knows the drill. She leaves her Town 'N Country home an hour before school dismisses. Any later, Nguyen said, and she'll end up "stuck in a line of cars all the way back on Gunn."

Feeling the impact

County transportation director Bob Campbell says he is not worried about the added traffic from Smith, as the schools will open and close at staggered hours.

Others are less optimistic.

At a Thursday retreat, county commissioners discussed plans to start spending school impact fees on roads strained by traffic from nearby schools.

"They are creating traffic problems, conflicts when they site schools," County Attorney Renee Lee said of the school system.

Already, the county and the school district have agreed to share costs of adding two turn lanes to the narrow N Mobley Road, one heading into Walker and the other into Hammond.

Right now, "trying to make a left turn is almost impossible," said Arlene Cornwall, whose daughters attend Walker. Long lines of cars in both directions easily block your line of sight, she said. "It's a little scary."

Design costs for the turn lanes are estimated at $141,821, followed by projected construction costs of $550,000.

Reading mentors

While the county and school system reconfigure N Mobley, Walker and Hammond are cooperating with a variety of programs themselves.

Their proximity allows a reading mentorship program between the older and younger children. And the two schools have collaborated on a safety crisis plan together.

"We practice evacuation drills so we know where everyone should go and also where we can fit on the campus," said Hammond principal Karen Zielinski. "We make great neighbors."

At other campuses, schools share facilities too. Hillsborough High and Memorial Middle share a gym. Freedom and Liberty share a cafeteria.

Citrus Park Elementary principal Joan Bookman looks forward to partnering with Smith when it opens in August. "Hopefully we'll figure out some programs - mentoring, or tutoring programs," she said.

Bookman wasn't bothered by additional traffic when her school shared space with Deer Park Elementary last year. And some parents with kids in multiple schools welcome the convenience. Margaret Winters of Citrus Park looks forward to a "one-stop dropoff and pickup."

Three schools and an expressway

The rubber will meet the road in Lutz, where in 2009 three schools will share space on Lutz Lake-Fern Road: McKitrick, Martinez, and what now is called High School SSS.

Already the school system has been hit with an $806,000 bill to put a traffic signal at the entrance of the high school, along with right and left turn lanes.

Separately, county and state turnpike officials plan to widen Lutz-Lake Fern to accommodate an interchange onto the Veterans Expressway. Work on that project will last until 2012.

It's all a sign of the times, say school officials, who envision a three-school campus in Plant City as well.

"In years past, the school sites were just much larger because we had a lot of land availability," said chief facilities officer Cathy Valdes.

"Now, there's so little land that school districts all over the state are looking to add schools at existing sites."

Amber Mobley can be reached at amobley@sptimes.com or 813 269-5311.