Task force set to address ‘school capacity crisis’
By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Taking their case to Hillsborough County commissioners this month, school officials warned of an “imminent school capacity crisis” without a concerted effort to secure buildable sites for new schools in high-growth areas.
In the move to create a Public School Siting Task Force, school officials reported in south Hillsborough County alone the need to build 31 schools over the next 15 years to keep pace with residential growth.
The school district owns one site on Bishop Road that could accommodate two schools, but County officials have ruled against a necessary finding of consistency due to a lack of funding to upgrade substandard roads.
Therein lies the rub, according to Chris Farkas, the school district’s chief of operations, who at a recent school board meeting essentially acknowledged that in south Hillsborough County, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack to find sites that are large enough to site schools and have adequate access roads.
Meanwhile, a projected need for two new schools per year, on average, has been identified for the area, amounting to 19 elementary, five middle and seven high schools overall.
This comes on the heels of two new schools opening in the area this school year — Jule F. Sumner High School in the Balm/Riverview area at 10650 Balm Road, and Belmont Elementary School in the Belmont Community, west of U.S. 301 in the Greater Riverview/Ruskin area.
In a slide presentation to commissioners this month, newly seated superintendent Addison Davis spelled out the particulars of the task he inherited, finding funding and sites for new schools to prevent double sessions and modular units. He noted the projected influx annually of 2,924 south county students per year per the school district’s five-year building plan through 2024-25. That amounts annually to 1,266 elementary, 524 middle and 1,134 high school students.
At a school board meeting set for Sept. 22, the board was to select a member to sit on the newly forming Public School Siting Task Force, which was set to include as well school district and Hillsborough county staff representatives, a county commissioner, development community stakeholders and directors from the planning commission and the Metropolitan Planning Organization.
According to the school district’s five-year building plan, a reconstructed Tampa Heights Elementary School is set to open in January. Additions to both Spoto High School in Riverview and Wimauma Elementary School are set to open August 2021. A year later, in the Waterset community, school officials hope to open in Apollo Beach a pre-kindergarten through grade 8th school, which is sorely needed to accommodate growth and relieve overcrowding at Shields and Eisenhower middle schools. That crunch this year led to the unique opening of Academy 2027 at Sumner High, where 450 middle school students are starting the first of their last seven years of statutory formal education.
On tap to open in August 2023 is a PK-8 conversion addition at Collins Elementary in Riverview and a new PK-8 Manhattan site in South Tampa. In 2025, dependent on property acquisition, a new school (now known as “High School UUU”) is set to open in south Hillsborough County. That school is partially funded.
The good news is projected construction and maintenance revenue amounts to $1,827,953,674, thanks to the local millage rate (1.5 percent), impact fees (with approved increase), Community Investment Tax, PECO maintenance revenue, bond revenue and sales tax revenue projected at $550,440,474 over the next five years.
But on the other side of the ledger, projected maintenance and construction needs also amount to $1,827,953,674, with major maintenance and new construction, respectively, amounting to 37.4 percent and 10.4 percent of the total, according to school district figures. The remaining 52.2 percent accounts for other costs, including school buses, debt, conversion costs and property purchases.
As for potential school sites, school officials indicate there are six in all, including four with planned development (PD) zonings not yet guaranteed as they are based on necessary conveyances negotiated with developers. The properties are a 30-acre site off Rhodine Road (where the challenge is “limited access, substandard road”), a 25-acre site in Waterset (“no access, lack of roadway to site”), a 25-acre Cypress Ridge Road site (“access to substandard road”) and a 15-acre Berry Bay Farms site (“no access, lack of roadway to site”).
A contract is pending for the “Wes property,” a 100-acre site also with “access to substandard roads.” Rounding out the six sites, and reserved in PD zoning, is the 65-acre Bishop Road site school officials bought this year but for which county officials have issued a no consistency ruling due to substandard roads. School officials have appealed the finding.
Noting there is “no easy or quick solution to substandard roadways due to lack of funding,” school officials say government and community stakeholders “must work together to solve this issue, or a school capacity crisis is imminent.”
Without an adequate transportation infrastructure in place for new school sites, school officials say overcrowding could lead to double sessions, modular units, decreased home values, safety issues, boundary changes, stressed infrastructure and safety issues.