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Hillsborough County needs more funding to help build new schools

Dozens of schools are at or over capacity
POP schools over capacity.png
Posted at 7:27 AM, Dec 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-23 09:05:23-05

TAMPA, Fla. — “We just aren't prioritizing our kids, and that is what's really upsetting is that our legislature absolutely has to prioritize our funding our kids,” Allen said.

Hillsborough County Public Schools have about 250 buildings across nearly 30 million square feet, but the amount of people moving here has put dozens of schools way overcapacity.

ABC Action News has been adding up enrollments and school capacities and finds as of right now, the Price of Paradise is too much for the county. They can’t afford to build new schools.

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South Tampa resident and former HCPS PTA President Damaris Allen graduated from Plant High School in the ’90s.

The year I graduated was actually the year we experience explosive growth in our county for the first time and had to build a ton of schools,” Allen said.

Now, she’s seeing things come full circle with her children — one just graduated from Plant High, the other is in his junior year.

So it's great, but it's super crowded,” Allen exclaimed. “It's a lot more crowded than it was when I was there. I know that when he's trying to get in classes are sometimes 30, 40 kids in a class especially for those high demand classes.”

We pulled enrollment numbers and found as of October this year, Plant High School is at 109% capacity, but that’s not even near the top of the list of 57 schools at 90% capacity and above.

Knights, Lincoln, Reddick, Roosevelt, and Sessums elementary schools are all around 120% capacity.

West Shore Elementary is at 138% capacity.

Shields Middle School is at 161% capacity.

Sumner High School 172% capacity.

The district confirmed they are meeting state guidelines for class size.

It presents some challenges,” said HCPS Chief Operations Officer Chris Farkas. “It's made us put portables on some sites — Lennard High School has portables. We have portables that are getting installed right now at Sumner for that reason."

"But it does mean that they're maxed out as close as we can to that limit to what we can do, " Farkas added, speaking of class sizes.

With record-pace growth, Hillsborough County will need 18 schools in the next 15 years, but the district needs the county to help build surrounding infrastructure like utilities and roads.

It’s money they don’t have.

In 2018, residents passed a penny sales tax for transportation projects that would help fund roads around schools, but the Florida Supreme Court stopped it due to a constitutional flaw. About half a billion dollars was collected before the referendum was struck down, but the funds have been frozen awaiting a judge's decision on how residents will get money back.

That same year, residents approved a half-cent education referendum, but that went to upkeep.

We had to end up passing a referendum to just keep up with capital improvements of our schools,” Allen said. “So while we're desperately trying to build more schools, our older schools are falling apart because we didn't have the funding to be able to do really important things like get mold out of schools, deal with AC repairs, our roofs were leaking.”

In 2020, the county commission raised the impact fees for developers to help build new schools, yet we still haven’t been able to catch up.

We went to commissioner and newly appointed chair Kimberly Overman to ask how officials plan to keep up with the growth

There's progress, but yes, we are constrained, without a referendum, without that surtax that passed in 18, without access to those resources, we are having to make up for not aligning our impact fees or mobility fees, with costs on a more frequent basis,” Overman explained. “We were doing it, but we hadn't updated the actual cost for calculating the fees and now that we are doing them, we should have less of a problem, but we still have a deficit that we have to overcome.”

In October, the county met with the district to work on a new interlocal agreement. They’re hoping to finalize it by January.

That's where in the past that wasn't lining up well,” Overman said. “The school would have a site and they're ready to go and then we would look at it and go, Wait, there's not road capacity there, there's not water capacity there, and that isn't part of our, you know, Community Investment Plan funding structure.”

In addition, the county is working on a new transportation tax referendum for the ballot in November 2022.

As far as keeping up with immediate growth, Overman points to the schools that are under capacity and suggests the district work to even out enrollments.

“I do believe there is capacity in the school system and how they may give them some ability to flex population, but that means that kids aren't going to school in their neighborhood school. And that's unfortunate,” Overman said.

That is one thing that changes to school boundary lines may help. Most recently, the district approved moving a section from the Westshore area to Jefferson.

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