Changing Hillsborough’s school boundaries: Good idea or too disruptive?
Some parents see benefits in redrawing the lines, while others fear it would harm their kids’ education.
Tampa Bay Times | By Marlene Sokol | October 5, 2022
Rob Remeikis can count the number of houses between his house and Ballast Point Elementary School — 16.
He can practically see the scalloped facade and decorative white columns from his front lawn. He lives on Ballast Point Boulevard. By all rules of logic, his two stepchildren should go to Ballast Point Elementary.
Instead they go to Chiaramonte Elementary, which has a low B grade instead of an A and looks more like a nest of bunkers than a fairy-tale castle. Other families they know live farther away and their children go to Ballast Point.
“How does that make any sense?” Remeikis asked. “It’s not fair.”
Where to educate children is one of the most compelling questions parents face. It raises issues of culture and class, opportunity and emotional well-being.
All these issues and more are coming to the forefront as the Hillsborough County school district wrestles with long-overdue decisions about boundary lines for close to 200 schools.
The immediate cause for an ongoing boundary study is underenrollment, which afflicts close to half the district’s older schools and wastes resources in a system under pressure to hold the line on spending.
But the exercise is exposing other flaws. Some boundaries originated during years of segregation. Others did not keep pace with new development, changing neighborhoods, or the growing popularity of publicly funded yet independently run charter schools.
There are parents such as Remeikis who hope to right what they see as wrongs.
Then there are parents who are satisfied with the status quo, and fear it will change. Lori Hans Felegy of Valrico worries that her younger daughter, a student at crowded Newsome High and a lacrosse player, will be moved to a school that has no lacrosse program and is weaker academically.
“If this changes, I will probably pull her and put her in a private school or a charter school,” Felegy said.
The study follows a false start in 2021, when superintendent Addison Davis talked of closing or consolidating schools that were largely empty, performing poorly or both. His idea was shot down by critics who feared charter schools would take possession of the surplus school buildings, as state law allows. To get an outside view that might be better received, he hired the New York architectural firm WXY Studio for $567,000.
“What we’ve learned is our community really understands that boundaries have to be made,” Davis told the school board recently. “But they don’t want their individual boundaries to be touched. And I get that.”
During a week of virtual meetings last month, parents told WXY they do not want to see their children moved from high-achieving schools to those with lower grades. Should that happen, they warned in the online chats, families will do as Felegy suggested and exit the district schools, making the underenrollment problem worse.
But while the WXY team estimated 60 percent of participants were trying to keep boundaries as they are, there were others like Remeikis who pointed to problems they would like to see addressed.
Robert Lee Pruitt of Lutz is a father of four who lives less than a mile away from the Steinbrenner High attendance boundary. But his street is zoned for Freedom High in New Tampa. The route he would take along County Line Road passes a third school, Wharton High.
He wants his children to go to Steinbrenner with the friends they are making at Lutz K-8. Most of his neighbors have their kids in private or charter schools, an option that does not appeal to him.
“I am a firm believer that the public education system is a more realistic slice of the social environment that you’re going to have to operate in when you leave school,” he said.
He’s not sure how the district can meet all of its goals without angering one group of parents or another. As for the current study, he said, “If I’m being frank, I get the sense that a lot of this is going through the motions to justify whatever decisions they will make later on. I don’t feel like they’re being sincere in getting our feedback.”
WXY officials turned down several requests from the Tampa Bay Times for interviews.
The firm’s website shows they have done boundary studies for school systems in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland. News stories describe backlash during the Montgomery County study, which began in 2019 and was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Hillsborough, meeting participants have questioned whether the researchers are doing enough to generate public interest, especially in minority communities where underenrolled schools might close. School board member Jessica Vaughn told the board that she fears the study is being rushed, and that the project will backfire when people see changes without enough public engagement.
An email from WXY planning director Kushan Dave to school district facilities chief Chris Farkas also questioned the project timeline. Public meetings were delayed because of the summertime campaign for a higher property tax to benefit the schools. That left little time between the first round of meetings and the second phase, which is supposed to involve extensive input from communities and school employees.
Davis, nevertheless, has said he expects to see recommendations as soon as late December. Change could come as early as August 2023.
The parents said they know there are some who would consider them elitist for their remarks. They say they are just looking out for their children’s best interests.
They insisted there are distinct, qualitative differences between one school and the next.
Remeikis has a child from a previous marriage who is in fourth grade at Roosevelt Elementary, one of the most successful schools in south Tampa. He has been able to make direct comparisons between the schools.
On Sept. 11, he said, his son at Roosevelt learned in detail about the terror attacks of 2001. He asked his stepson at Chiaramonte Elementary what he had learned. “I asked him for a couple days, not anything,” Remeikis said.
Parents at Roosevelt were better dressed for open house, he said, suggesting children there will enjoy social advantages. Mainly, he said, he wants to see his stepchildren challenged in their classwork.
“I know how I was as a young child,” he said. “If I wasn’t challenged, I was getting in trouble.”
For Felegy’s daughter, the issues are both athletic and academic. If forced to change schools, she might not get as much science instruction as she craves, Felegy said. She could miss out on a chance to play college lacrosse. And the college preparation activities that heat up during 10th and 11th grades will be disrupted.
“With the year they just came through from COVID, educationally and socially, it’s a really hard sell to parents to try and move middle school and high school kids,” Felegy added.
According to the presentations that the WXY group has given, diversity is one of their goals.
The problem with that idea, critics say, is that it is extremely difficult to engineer diversity into a struggling school when families of privilege have so many ways to exit the school. Parents describe a common scenario: A school earns a low grade, families with resources pull their children out, and the grade remains low.
Adams Middle School is a case in point, with boundaries that include the affluent Original Carrollwood area. But so many of that neighborhood’s families refuse to send their children to Adams that the middle school is half-empty, only 10 percent white, and showing a persistent D grade. Tired of losing students in the younger grades so they can secure seats at K-8 charter schools, a group of Carrollwood Elementary parents is pressing to convert their school to a K-8.
Choice is important, regardless of where the lines are drawn, parents said. Cassy Timken, president of the Valrico Elementary School PTA, said she is pleased with the education her two children are receiving. “We’re in a bubble right now,” she said. “I spend a lot of time texting with my children’s teachers. Our principal is very professional, she is very respectful and kind.”
But she is looking for alternatives to Mann Middle and Brandon High, the schools where her children would be assigned after Valrico. She does not believe those schools offer an environment that will be compatible with the structure and values she and her husband provide at home.
“My kids have friends, you wonder what kind of chance they’re going to have in life,” she said. “My daughter and son, they were putting dishes into the sink before they could even reach it. That’s not an allowance. That’s living here.”