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PTA moms put foot down over growth

Diving into politics, and commanding attention, they want development curbed where schools are overcrowded - or more schools.

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 22, 2001


TAMPA -- Three Valrico PTA moms are attempting to do what even the governor could not: get development curbed in booming areas where schools are overcrowded.

"I don't want developers to think we're anti-growth," said parent Jennifer Faliero, who is joined by Angie Piche and Debbie Fabrizio in Parent's Initiative to Relieve School Overcrowding. "We just want them to pay their fair share."

These three women from Buckhorn Elementary's PTA are on the cusp of a monumental task to restrict home construction in Hillsborough unless more schools are built. If new homes or apartments will make congested schools even more crammed, they want the county and its three cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City to say no.

That is, unless developers agree to help build more schools.

"This is not a political issue," exhorts Faliero, a parent of two daughters. "This is parents concerned about the children."

Whatever it is, these parents are already catching attention from school officials, lawmakers and planners.

They are also drawing the ire of developers.

"Houses don't go to school," said Ian Smith of the Florida Home Builders Association. "Kids go to school. Just because you build a house doesn't mean the schools are going to increase."

State Rep. Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, applauds the women's efforts.

"I'm elated somebody cares enough to do something about it," said Byrd, who is in line to be the next House speaker.

Byrd is helping connect the parental crusaders to the right people in the county, such as Bob Hunter, executive director of the Hillsborough County-City County Planning Commission, who says the mothers have raised a valid issue.

"Theirs is a grass-roots effort," he said. "That means they have a lot of work to do. But these are parents with children in the system, so that helps."

In Hillsborough, the county commission and cities can't consider school overcrowding when approving new apartments and subdivisions. They can only consider parks, sewers, water, drainage, roads, solid waste.

But overcrowding is one of the major issues facing Hillsborough schools. With an average of 4,000 students being added every year, the district will build 34 schools in the next five years.

This coming school year, 73 of 166 Hillsborough schools will be over capacity.

Buckhorn Elementary, which the women's children attend, has about 150 more children than it was built to hold.

During the last legislative session, a growth management bill that would have required communities to block construction when schools are packed died in the last hours of the session despite Gov. Jeb Bush's endorsement.

The Hillsborough women say they are propelled by anger and a concern for their children who have to go to lunch beginning at 9:30 a.m. so the cafeterias will not be too crowded.

"We want to make sure they have the best learning possibilities," said Fabrizio, Buckhorn's PTA president. "The teachers are wonderful, but it's hard to do when you have 30 kids in a classroom."

The women began their campaign in April after learning about a 499-home subdivision coming to their neighborhood -- Daton International's Buckhorn Groves West. But when they turned up at the county to protest, they were told they couldn't talk about crowded classrooms. They eventually got the developer to reduce the number of houses to 435, but they could do nothing about the schools.

They were shocked -- and propelled into action.

"I think the public will be just as surprised as we were," Piche said. "Everybody I talk to is floored that this isn't considered."

The women are starting to round up supporters and craft proposed changes to the county and each city's land use plan.

They'll have to triumph over the arguments of developers and wade through reams of red tape and politics to get the governments to agree.

They'll also have to overcome those who dismiss their labors simply because of who they are -- stay-at-home mothers.

"I like the fact that they think were just a bunch of moms," said Faliero, who has two children at Buckhorn Elementary. "That's to our advantage. They just don't know what we're capable of."

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