RIVERVIEW, Fla. — Tampa Bay is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, seeing about 20% growth in the last decade, according to the latest Census Data. But with that, comes the growing pains. From housing and infrastructure to education.
With more than 224,000 students, the Hillsborough County School District has some schools that are hundreds of students overcapacity. Sumner High School and Academy 2027 is their newest school in South County. They intentionally built it to hold more students, but they had no idea it would be 130% capacity at the start of its second year.
“When I came here in January, we had 24/2500 kids,” said Principal Robert Nelson. “And then as we got to the end of the school year… we were projected at probably 31/3200... We have almost 3500 that are here right now.”
Most high schools in Hillsborough average about 2,500 kids, with anywhere from 65 to 80% of students in the school’s nearby neighborhoods attending. Sumner High, in Riverview, is the district's first school to have 90% of its assigned students attending.
“We have to make sure we get everybody fed, we have five full lunches here,” Nelson explained. “We have 37 bus routes here, trying to get everybody here and to get everybody's home safely.”
Two months into the school year and they are now adding twenty portable classrooms to the campus.
“The biggest thing is trying to continue to lower class sizes and balance our classes a little bit. When you're so far over kids, overcapacity, we have teachers that are floating and to be able to get them into a classroom is a — it's a big thing,” Nelson said.
It’s something the district’s chief of operations, Chris Farkas, said they’ve never had to do before.
“Growth in the southern part of the county is our biggest boom right now. And we are seeing a huge need for new student stations, new student seats, and schools at all levels— elementary, middle and high school,” Farkas said.
But, it’s no surprise. Two years ago, a long-range study predicted the district would need 18 new schools in the next 15 years.
“One of our biggest challenges we face now is land to build on,” Farkas explained. “Hillsborough County's infrastructure, one of the challenges they face is making sure they have roads and sidewalks and things like that so that we can put schools on property. We own some property in southern part of the county. We have some that has been dedicated to us, but the actual building has not begun yet.”
ABC Action News reached out to the county.
Public Works Administrator John Lyons said in a statement that infrastructure improvements have not kept up with the population and there is a need for more transportation funding.
His statement reads in part: “Even with additional funding, a corridor improvement project that includes sidewalks, bike lanes, drainage systems and traffic signals typically takes at least five years to complete, which is longer than it takes to build a school.”
Farkas said there’s no more room to build in New Tampa or Westchase, so it’s all moving to the southern part of the county.
The district chose to build Sumner in South County after watching major upticks in permits to build housing there.
A look at the county’s Urban Service Corridor map shows where the county has focused most development close to services and utilities, which means development will now go toward Plant City.
“So you're gonna see growth out there in northern Plants and you will see some of those same problems with high schools in Strawberry Crass, Plant City and Durant,” Farkas said.
Right now, the district is submitting an application to the county to build a three-in-one elementary, middle, and high school on property they already own on West Lake Drive in South County. Farkas said their intent is to keep infrastructure costs low for the county.
However, Lyons also specified in his statement that this area is a challenge.
So where could more transportation funding come from?
Hillsborough County leaders are working to put a new penny sales tax on the ballot in 2022 to pay for transportation projects. If approved by voters, the new surtax would pay for projects like new roads, sidewalks, crosswalks, bike lanes and more across the county.
“It’s the same problem everywhere, which is the funding,” Farkas said referring to schools in growing cities. “Now, in Florida, it's a little different because you've got like Orange County that's had the sales tax referendum for 20 years and has a millage increase. They've got local funding, which supports some more. I mean, the Disney part of the conversation helps them out. We've only had ours for two and a half years. So we're catching up."
"There's also places that are property rich getting their bet a lot of property value and they comes up and Manatee and Sarasota places like that," Farkas added.
As for Sumner High, Principal Nelson said his school is the only one in the district to offer the Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) program, an innovative and accelerated method of study offered through Cambridge Assessment International Examinations. He believes this, along with veterinary, culinary, and career tech programs will only continue to attract students there.
“This is a temporary fix that we're working with the district to find a long term solution, he said, “A long-range goal for here at Sumner and the size that we are and for South County overall to be able to serve the community.”
Nelson said they have been able to recruit enough teachers, but they’d like to more to make class sizes smaller. He’s also still hiring for several support staff positions.
The district overall needs some teachers as well, but their biggest needs are staff like cafeteria workers and bus drivers.
Read the full statement from John Lyons, Public County Administrator:
“There has been tremendous growth in south county over the past several years, and infrastructure improvements have not kept up with the increase in population. The County and School District continue to work collaboratively to meet the needs of the community for safe and efficient infrastructure around schools. With that said, there is a need for additional transportation funding to accommodate the growth.
Even with additional funding, a corridor improvement project that includes sidewalks, bike lanes, drainage systems and traffic signals typically takes at least five years to complete, which is longer than it takes to build a school. This is particularly challenging for school sites along unimproved rural roads such as Bishop Road and Westlake Drive.
In addition to infrastructure at new schools, Hillsborough County consistently makes Safe Routes to Schools improvements around existing schools to make it safer for students to walk or bike – such as sidewalk expansion and repair, new and upgraded crosswalks, trimming back foliage for better visibility around school crossings and new pedestrian-activated signage.
In the past two years, some of Hillsborough’s biggest Safe Routes to Schools projects include:
- Reconfigured the entrance to two schools on Nine Eagles Drive to prevent commuters from going the wrong way on Nine Eagles to avoid school traffic
- Built a 10-foot multi-use path along Covington Garden Drive with vertical delineators along with all new pedestrian crossings and reconfigured stop bars to help middle schoolers and high schoolers cross Big Bend Road
- Built out all new school crossing infrastructure and new sidewalks near the entrance to Rodgers Middle School on McMullen Road