February 7, 2023

Hillsborough’s school boundary plans: closed schools, thousands affected

The Hillsborough County school district could close a half dozen schools and use them for other purposes, according to plans released Tuesday after months of development by a consultant.

Several more campuses would be partially “repurposed,” meaning they might share space with district offices, preschools or adult education centers.

The scenarios are contained in three proposals for redrawing school attendance boundaries with the goal of improving efficiency. Under the most ambitious option, 24,000 students would be assigned to different schools next year.

Some would leave popular schools that have become too crowded. Others would leave schools that have long struggled with low enrollment and poor grades.

“This is bold for us,” Superintendent Addison Davis said, describing the recommendations of New York consultant WXY Studio, which has worked with the district since the spring.

“But it’s necessary. We have to make sure we are being fiscally responsible and maximizing every dollar we spend at every facility.”

Related: As Hillsborough considers new school boundaries, many families aren’t tuned in

The schools in play include Just Elementary, a West Tampa institution that saw enrollment shrink to 283 students with the shuttering of the North Boulevard Homes public housing complex, and Adams Middle of North Tampa, which is less than half full with 597 students and has had a state grade of D since 2019.

John Quincy Adams Middle School at 10201 N Boulevard in Tampa is one of several campuses being discussed as the Hillsborough County school district contemplates consolidating some buildings and redrawing attendance boundaries. [ Hillsborough County Public Schools ]

Elsewhere in the district, elementary schools have between 500 and 900 students while middle schools sometimes have 1,000 or more.

Cleveland and Kimbell elementary schools would find new uses under one of the three plans. So would Monroe Middle in South Tampa and McLane Middle in Brandon, where large numbers have been bused in from East Tampa for decades.

It is not yet clear what those new uses would be: Options include magnet schools, training centers or perhaps affordable housing for teachers.

District leaders say they will not abandon any of these buildings, as state law would allow privately run charter schools to claim them.

But that law does not apply to district office buildings. One scenario, according to operations chief Chris Farkas, is to sell some of the district’s office buildings and have the employees work out of some of the schools that are slated to be partially repurposed. They might find such a use for part of Chamberlain High School, Greco Middle or Jennings Middle.

The biggest source of uncertainty is how the public will respond to these plans, as nothing of this nature has been attempted in Hillsborough in recent memory.

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WXY and the district on Tuesday evening unveiled an interactive web tool allowing users to plug in any address or school and see the proposed boundary changes.

Contemplating the reactions, Davis said: “I want to be as aggressive as we can be. But I also want to be as sensitive as we can to the community.”

While the vast majority who have shown interest so far are parents, homeowners without children also have a stake as their property values will be affected.

Anyone who uses the interactive tool will be able to post comments, which will be forwarded to the School Board members.

Then it’s up to the board to decide what happens next. A decision is expected soon, in time for the new boundaries to be in place for the 2023-24 school year.

Money is a driving concern. District leaders, under state scrutiny for their spending, say they are trying to maximize efficiency. With more than 60 schools a third or more empty, they say these plans can save as much as $31 million a year in operating costs. And as the district will not have to build as many new schools, there is also a potential savings of $163 million in capital costs.

The “repurposing” plan also creates opportunities to try new ventures. Newcomer centers that provide services to recent immigrants, teacher training and counseling centers are just a few examples. Magnet programs might open in suburban communities that have not had them in the past.

While the boundary changes would take effect in August, some of the specialty centers might take years to fund and organize.

The many possible consequences of this plan include an exodus of unhappy families from district schools into either charter schools or private schools that can now be accessed through state scholarships.

But two of the three plans include a proposal that will make one community happy: expanding Carrollwood Elementary School to a K-8 format.

Related: Hillsborough pushes public meetings for school boundary changes to January

Although the plans address multiple needs in the district, officials said there will not be a dramatic effect on concentrated poverty, which is often cited as a factor in the poor academic records at some schools.

Davis and Farkas said they did not want to change poverty levels too significantly, as such changes would require them to provide more services at a greater number of schools. The plans show that the number of schools with 80% or more students receiving free lunch — a common measure of school poverty — will remain relatively unchanged.

District leaders and their consultants also recognize that a segment of the community most directly affected — urban north and east Tampa — has been slow to get involved in the project.

The majority of people who took part in virtual meetings and online surveys were white. There was little participation from the predominantly Black electoral District 5, which has many of Hillsborough’s under-enrolled schools.

Ten in-person community meetings are planned in mid-January, and Davis said the district will make a special effort to engage Black residents.

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