Hillsborough delays school boundary decision with new schedule

Decisions concerning school boundary changes and possible school closures in Hillsborough County will be delayed by at least two weeks, the district announced Wednesday.

A school board workshop that had been scheduled for Jan. 31 to discuss recommendations by Superintendent Addison Davis is now set for Feb. 13. Special board meetings to discuss school boundaries will take place Feb. 28 and March 9.

In an email to staff and families, Davis said more than 15,000 people have attended community meetings in recent weeks, posted comments on a project website, or both. “This high level of community engagement is critical,” he wrote.

With that goal in mind, the district has scheduled another series of 6 p.m. meetings that will allow residents to discuss the recommendations. The meetings will be at King High School and Mulrennan Middle School on Feb. 20; Webb Middle on Feb. 22; Madison Middle and Chamberlain High on Feb. 23.

The project is designed to save money and enhance opportunities for students by evening out enrollment levels at hundreds of school buildings.

But it has been fraught with board disagreement and fierce community opposition, much of it in South Tampa.

Board member Karen Perez shot the project down early, as the district’s New York-based consulting firm has recommended closing and repurposing several urban schools. Perez said such actions are part of a national trend of closing schools with large Black and Hispanic populations, with detrimental effects on the children and their communities.

Board member Jessica Vaughn has said WXY Studio, the consulting firm, is not responsive to her questions. And she says the district is missing out on an opportunity to improve racial and economic diversity by failing to focus on those issues in redrawing school boundaries.

“This is the biggest decision that we can make, and changing these boundaries and this process that we are about to undergo will be our legacy,” Vaughn said at Tuesday’s school board meeting. She said it was ironic that diversity is not being considered after board members agreed at a workshop last week that they are committed to racial equity.

Board member Stacy Hahn also has taken a keen interest in the project. Her electoral district includes South Tampa neighborhoods whose children might be moved from A-graded Plant High and Coleman Middle School to C-graded Jefferson High and Pierce Middle.

Hahn, who had pushed for a longer timeline and more community outreach, met Wednesday evening with about 30 people in Westshore Palms.

She listened to parents who, at times, delivered frightening descriptions of Pierce, a high-poverty school in Town ‘N Country. She said she was glad Davis is taking a pause in the boundary project. The earlier timetable “was not very compassionate, and we have to right the ship,” she said.

Hahn also said she is glad Davis and the other board members will spend more time interacting with families. “This isn’t about numbers on a computer screen, coming from a company that doesn’t know our community,” she said. “There is a human element.”

The project is under way at a time of continued concern about finances. In the last two years, Davis and his staff have found ways to cure a multi-year operating deficit that drew close scrutiny from the state Department of Education.

But to avoid another deficit, the district for the past two years has offered its teachers one-time pay supplements instead of recurring salary increases. The latest offer would give the teachers the credit, for pay purposes, for one of the two years. But the union wants its members to be fully caught up. The two sides are awaiting the results of an impasse hearing.

Hillsborough is unusual among Florida districts in that it was not able to sell voters on a special property tax to support schools. The measure failed by less than 600 votes in the August election.

District leaders say they would have pursued the boundary adjustments and school closings even if the tax had passed, as they are operating dozens of schools that are either filled beyond capacity or a third to a half empty.