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Tampa Bay area schools face capacity issues adding thousands of students this year

Some districts are seeing about 4.5% growth rates
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Posted at 5:11 AM, Dec 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-08 11:15:08-05

TAMPA, Fla. — With more and more families moving to the Tampa Bay area every day, comes the need for more housing, and with that, new schools. ABC Action News is looking at the Price of Paradise and what school districts are doing to keep up with students needing seats.

While many districts lost thousands of students during the pandemic, schools are starting to see numbers increasing again.

Growth in the southern part of the county is our biggest boom right now,” said Chris Farkas, Chief Operations Officer for Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS). We are seeing a huge need for new students stations, new student seats and schools at all levels elementary, middle and high school.

Even after opening Sumner High School in South County last year to accommodate more than 3,000 students, the district’s now adding 20 portable classrooms.

“This is a problem we saw coming,” Farkas explained. “We actually commissioned a long-range study here about two years ago to look at this. They predicted we need 18 schools in the next 15 years.”

We pulled fall enrollment for districts across Tampa Bay and found this isn’t unique to Hillsborough.

HCPS gained 2,500 students in traditional schools this year, totaling 185,000 (not including nearly 40,000 charter school students.)

Of the traditional schools, 14 schools are 90-98% capacity. Forty-three schools are at or above capacity, including:

  • 22 elementary schools
  • Eight middle schools
  • 11 high schools
  • Two K thru 8 schools

Manatee County Public Schools added more than 2,000 students, now at nearly 50,000 total enrollment. Eighteen schools are not accepting any new students due to capacity.

The most overcrowded are:

  • Lakewood High School at 132% capacity 
  • Palm View K Thru 8 at 140% capacity
  • Gullett Elementary at 139% capacity.

Sarasota County Public Schools added 1,222 students, totaling 44,617, which may not seem like a lot, but that’s about a 2.7% growth rate.

Pasco County Schools added more than 3,200 students, now at almost 82,000.

The director of planning and the assistant superintendent for support services told ABC Action News that 4.2% is the highest growth they’ve seen in years.

“Overall, we're looking at about a growth of about 3,500 students. You know, traditional, at least on average, over the last several years, we've been growing about between 1-2%,” Director of Planning Chris Williams.

Polk County Public schools added 5,000 students, increasing 4.7% to 111,000 total enrollment.

Nearly every district is either opening new schools or is planning to open them.

Polk County opened three this year. Pasco opened one, with plans for a new school every year for about a decade. Manatee is also planning to open several schools in the next five to eight years.

But in Hillsborough County, the district doesn’t have any new schools on the books yet, citing a lack of infrastructure funding from the county.

Where the growth is, is where we need land for schools and it takes a lot of acreage to do that. So there's a challenge there of trying to make that happen,” Farkas explained. “So I would say that it’s literally a weekly battle, a weekly challenge that we face, trying to make sure that we work with the county to get it done.”

In 2005, Florida passed legislation requiring infrastructure like roads and sidewalks for schools to be in place within three years of construction of new homes. This is referred to as concurrency.

The Hillsborough Planning Commission Director tells ABC Action News that the county hasn’t been able to keep up, likely due to projects approved well before demand.

The process is working that it is slowing things, but you know, there are a lot of entitlements that were approved perhaps before there was a problem that are you know, they're still building the houses,” said Melissa Zornitta, Executive Director of the Hillsborough County Planning Commission.

In Pasco and Polk, school buildings are funded by revenue streams such as:

  • School impact fee dollars
  • Capital millage
  • Penny or half-cent sales tax referendums

But in Hillsborough, new construction can only be funded by impact fee revenue from new developments.

In March 2020, Hillsborough County voted to double impact fees for new homes with hopes of helping schools keep up with growth.

When we asked county public works about helping the schools build out roads, Public Works Administrator John Lyons told ABC Action News in an email statement: "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."

We reached out to Hillsborough County Commission Chair Kimberly Overman for comment on the need for more schools but did not get a response.

In contrast to much of Tampa Bay, Pinellas County Schools lost 770 students in the last year.

In terms of school growth, Shore Acres Elementary school in downtown St Petersburg did gain about 50 new students.

The district told us in a statement that they don’t need any new buildings, saying in part:

“We work closely with our municipalities and county govt to monitor the construction of new apartments and residential communities to anticipate whether or not we need to expand any of our current facilities.  We do not see those types of needs in the next several years.” Clint Herbic, Associate Superintendent, Operational Services for Pinellas County Schools, said by email.

WHAT IS THE PRICE OF PARADISE?
As Tampa Bay continues to attract new residents and businesses, the impact of living in paradise comes at a cost for all of us— from the increasing cost of housing and infrastructure to utilities and insurance. ABC Action News is committed to helping you and your family make the most of your money and navigate through the Price of Paradise.