Parents air concerns as Hillsborough begins forums on new school boundaries
Tampa Bay Times | By Marlene Sokol | January 10, 2023
Officials rolled out three proposals to kick off a series of public meetings this week. “Not an easy conversation to have.”
A sometimes skeptical audience at Middleton High was urged Monday to keep advocating for their children as the Hillsborough County school district redraws school boundaries.
Superintendent Addison Davis, speaking alongside project consultant Kushan Dave, stressed that the district is nowhere near a decision on the boundary plan, and community input is crucial before the School Board weighs its options in February.
“This is not an easy conversation to have,” Davis said. “We’re going to be as sensitive as we can in this process.”
But, he said, given the inefficiencies that come from outdated boundaries, “I do know that we have to do something.”
At Middleton and at Plant City High on Monday evening, the district completed the first of 10 “gallery walk” presentations designed to showcase the complex changes and solicit responses through comments on a website.
Not everyone likes the format, and the district added Davis’ question-and-answer session as a compromise.
Still, there was grumbling in the room about the way questions had to be written and vetted in advance. Some participants complained that the visual displays were hard to see.
Before and after the meeting, some said they would have liked to see community discussion before the consultant, WXY Studio of New York, prepared three sets of boundary plans.
“I think this is just a show,” said Earlisha Oates, who also worries that students in rival gangs might wind up in the same high school.
“This is a continuation of 400 years of control over people’s lives,” Malik Abdullah said. “You have these people at the top level making decisions for people on a lower level, economically, that’s going to affect their lives, without their input.”
Four School Board members attended, including Henry “Shake” Washington, who represents District 5, which includes Middleton. Washington said he has not yet discussed the boundary plan with groups of his constituents because he wants to make sure he has all the facts. But he said he will do so before the February vote.
The district hopes to save as much as $31 million a year in operating costs through changes that could affect as many as 24,000 students. No employees will lose their jobs, Davis assured the crowd.
The district wants to “repurpose” a small number of schools that are now largely empty, meaning they will be put to uses other than traditional schools. But, as any such move would need School Board approval, it is not yet clear what those uses would be.
More meetings like the two on Monday are planned at these high schools: Brandon and Sumner on Tuesday, Plant and Leto on Wednesday, Gaither and Sickles on Thursday, Wharton and Bloomingdale on Friday.
They follow ongoing activity in communities where homeowners fear negative effects on their property values and families do not want to see their children transferred to different schools.
State Rep. Susan Valdés, D-Tampa, and School Board member Karen Perez hosted one such gathering in a Town ‘N Country recreation center on Saturday.
Valdes, who served on the School Board before winning a House seat in 2018, said she recalled many conversations about the need for new school boundaries. She said it was always expected that change would happen “in a thoughtful, meaningful way, having true conversations with the community.” Now, she said, “it doesn’t seem like that’s what happened.”
Concerned parents included Colette Robitaille, whose children’s school, Morgan Woods Elementary, might be repurposed.
“I want my kids to go to school in their community with kids they’re going to see in their neighborhood,” said Robitaille, who teaches special education at Webb Middle. “I want them to be able to walk down the street and say ‘Mom, can I go to my friend’s house that is two houses down’ versus “Mom, can you drive me five miles to my friend’s house?’ They’re taking away that choice from me. And it’s just not OK.”
Parents and homeowners in South Tampa, where some students might be transferred from Plant High to Jefferson High, have discussed other actions, including a protest march from the Westshore neighborhood to Plant.
The County Council of PTA/PTSA, which has criticized the roll-out of the boundary plans, said it will host School Board member Lynn Gray at a forum on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Gandy Civic Center.