Right-sizing the Hillsborough school system must remain a priority

The standing-room-only crowd lined two deep against the walls of the downtown Tampa auditorium as scores of speakers implored the Hillsborough County School Board not to close Just Elementary. For months, Just’s fate had teetered, as the board weighed the practicality of closing a half-empty school against the difficult message that mothballing a mostly-Black campus would send to Tampa’s African-American community.

But hours into the May meeting, after nearly 60 people spoke mostly in opposition, the seven-member board voted 4-3 to close Just before the start of the school year next month. It was a remarkable decision; never in its 140-year existence had Hillsborough closed a school because of low enrollment.

Later that same evening, the same board majority took only 30 minutes to authorize the closure of five additional schools. The racial politics over closing them wasn’t as galvanizing, but the board’s rationale was the same: Hillsborough taxpayers cannot afford to operate half-empty campuses.

The votes capped an agonizing year of debate over how to right-size Hillsborough’s 217 traditional public school campuses — a sprawling system that failed to adjust as the population shifted from the urban core to the far-flung suburbs. Too many of the schools are where students aren’t, and vice versa. The closures and a sweeping student reassignment plan were deemed essential for controlling spending in a district that only narrowly escaped state receivership. But opponents questioned whether the savings were worth it, and even supporters acknowledged the retooling might not buy the district — as administrators promised — five years of stability before having to undergo this ordeal again.

But did the district really buy five years — or maybe three, or two? That longer-term window looks increasingly uncertain. While the district is only beginning to institute its closure plan, new figures show that lagging enrollment will likely continue, that private and charter schools will peel even more students away from traditional classrooms and that demographic and housing patterns will further keep many underused campuses in the political crosshairs. And these trends, which all drain the budget, are occurring as the school district envisions going back to county voters in a referendum next year for an additional property tax to pay for employee salaries.

“I think this is just the beginning,” School Board Chairperson Nadia Combs said at that May 9 meeting where Just was closed. “We built schools often on top of each other; unfortunately, the students are no longer coming to every one of those schools.”

However practical and necessary the closures, the frustration and anger that erupted this year shows how communities suffer when big decisions that affect people’s lives and identities are repeatedly kicked down the road. It’s one reason Superintendent Addison Davis, who resigned in June just as the board gave final approval to the boundary changes, wanted to close more schools. Why put residents through this in another year or two, he wondered.

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In voting to shutter Just, school board member Lynn Gray warned about more tough decisions on consolidating campuses ahead: “This is not the end of it.”

Closures, sort of

In one sense, the decision to close these schools should have been easy. By 2022, when Hillsborough first started to seriously confront its institutional bloat, one-third of its schools — 83 in total — operated at or below 70% capacity, while 16 schools were half-full or less. But the very idea of closures was so unimaginable and politically toxic that officials spent most of the year in the run-up to this decision watering down the plan.

One early scenario — itself modest — called for closing seven schools and retooling several others, which together with countywide boundary changes would have affected 24,000 students, saving the district about $31 million annually. The board ultimately decided, by a single vote in June, to close six schools, which together with boundary changes affected 15,277 students, saving $13.5 million annually. That amount is less than 1% of the district’s $1.8 billion annual operating budget. For perspective, Hillsborough spends four times as much annually ($60 million) on busing students. While every dollar matters, this always seemed less about tightening one’s belt than scrimping on the tip.

The closures are also less than they seem. Of the six, only Just Elementary closes this year, and school officials are meeting with Black civic leaders in Tampa on plans to reopen Just within several years as an early childhood center or other school facility. So it’s closing, but it could reopen soon. The other five schools close in August 2024, though one, Adams Middle, is expected to reopen in 2026 as a college preparatory academy. What will happen with the remaining four campuses is unclear. The board also insisted on other concessions, such as refusing to sell surplus school campuses, some of which could generate tens of millions of additional dollars apiece. This was another example of how a financial exercise devolved into politics. Why hang on to the campus of an unneeded school when the students aren’t coming back?

While the closures make more efficient use of existing campuses, it’s worth remembering that even after the plan is fully implemented, Hillsborough will have at least 18 schools with occupancies in the 70% range or lower. Hillsborough has fewer students today in traditional public schools (189,708) than it did in 2018 (195,016), thanks to the rise of charter schools, whose student count has increased over that same period to 34,830 from 25,241. Though charters in Hillsborough date to the late 1990s, half of the 55 charters operating this year were established in the last 10 years.

The changes in school options are broad and coming fast. A report presented to the school board in June showed that while Hillsborough’s elementary enrollment is projected to increase between now and 2027, those gains should be offset by decreasing enrollment in middle and high schools. Those projections come even before the state rolls out its vastly expanded public voucher program for private schools, which most observers expect to accelerate the flight from traditional public schools. And the stagnating projections come as Hillsborough has tens of thousands of empty seats already across existing elementary (21,973), middle (10,145) and high schools (2,278).

“I don’t ever imagine seeing our enrollment higher than it is today,” Combs, the board chairperson, noted in May.

Districts across the country are closing schools in response to an enrollment crunch, thanks in part to the rising popularity of charters and also to low fertility rates, which are projected to remain low through at least mid-century. But Hillsborough’s challenge is further complicated by its student population growing in the suburbs while shrinking in older and urban neighborhoods, where the school system is overbuilt for today’s fast-evolving educational marketplace.

Between 2012 and 2022, 86 schools in the district gained students, while 131 schools lost enrollment. More students appeared in highly coveted South Tampa and the growing suburbs in the south and east, but enrollment fell in the older, northwest suburbs, and in the heavily minority neighborhoods of central and east Tampa. Thirty of the 40 schools in Combs’ Town ‘N Country-area district lost enrollment, as did 36 of the 52 schools in board member Henry “Shake” Washington’s east Tampa district. Not surprisingly, Washington’s district had the second-highest number of charters in Hillsborough during the last school year.

A 2021 study for the district identified the coming need for 18 new schools; 15 of those are targeted for south county. Remember, all those new schools are in a district that doesn’t expect its total number of students to increase very much, if at all, in coming years. The urban-suburban imbalance makes it virtually impossible for Hillsborough to spread the pain of school closures and student reassignments evenly. Imagine driving a car with a tire on one side swelling while a tire on the other side is leaking. It won’t work, or at least it won’t be a comfortable ride.

Board supporters said the school closures and boundary changes are critical to convincing voters that Hillsborough can manage its finances and still provide a quality education. Combs, the board chairperson, believed voters needed to see robust consolidation if the school board, as expected, hoped to place a surtax for operations on the 2024 general election ballot. “How can we even think, even consider, asking for any type of referendum,” she wondered, “if we are not willing to make some really difficult decisions?”

Great question. The school board has a year to make that answer crystal clear to voters.

John Hill is an editorial writer with the Tampa Bay Times.

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