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Workshop tackles the problem of student population growth

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At the Hernando County School Board (HCSB) workshop held on May 30, 2023, members grappled with how to balance a rapidly growing student population with facility space needs and obtain the necessary funding to accommodate the growth. The discussion was led by James Lipsey, Manager of Planning, Design, and Construction for the Hernando County School District (HCSD). The district is faced with the construction of an additional 12,000 dwelling units over the next ten years, equating to 7,800 students entering the school system. The total number of students, which currently is approximately 24,000, is expected to increase to 32,000.

New housing developments in the western and central parts of the county are progressing faster than those on the east side. The greatest student growth will be in grade levels 3, 5, 6, and 11 over the next five years. The ten-year outlook forecasts the greatest growth in grades 8-12.
The question at hand is how to accommodate the space needs of these students.

Projections suggest that the school district should be able to shift school boundaries (rezone) enough to balance the elementary and middle school capacity district-wide, at least for the next five years. High schools, however, are a different story. Lipsey explained, “With an average projected level of service at 99 percent, shifting high school boundaries will do little to nothing to alleviate anticipated growth. At the high school level, adding new capacity is really the only viable option.”

In five years, Central High School alone is projected to see 515 additional students. Special programs and magnet schools pose a unique challenge to high school capacity. An example is Springstead High School, which is not a magnet school; however, it draws an extra 200 students to its IB (International Baccalaureate) and JROTC (Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) programs.

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The school board has three choices to alleviate school overcrowding, which can be separated into short-term and long-term solutions. In the short term, the school district can conduct rezoning and lease commercial space. Commercial leases come with additional considerations and will almost certainly require remodeling and retrofitting to be compliant with educational standards for facilities. In the long term, new school construction or building additions to existing schools are the options. Commercial leases must meet statutory requirements governed by Florida Statute (FS) 1013.15(4). If leased for a year or less, shall be funded through operations budget or millage. Operational or millage funds may be authorized if extended or renewed beyond one year.

The School Board must publicly adopt a resolution certifying that growth has created a need for new facilities and there is little to no vacant land available. The resolution must also certify that there is vacant space available that meets building and life safety standards for an educational facility. It must also show that acquisition and conversion to educational use are more cost-effective.

The hypothetical cost for a commercial lease over ten years for 200 high school students is approximately $7,200,000. The $7,200,000 estimate assumes a cost of $17.25 per square foot (sf) per year for 20,000 sf. for ten years (which is $3,450,000), $3,000,000 for remodeling and retrofitting the 20,000 sf ($150/sf) and an operating budget of $750,000 per year. The estimate seems to only include a single year of operating budget.

Other requirements officials must consider before taking the lease route include; buildings must be ADA compliant and meet other codes for educational occupancy. There must be a separate pickup and drop-off area for buses and private vehicles, specific roadway, vehicular and pedestrian traffic requirements, and a fire drill assembly area. “While leasing a commercial space may seem like an easy short-term fix, in reality, there are a lot of constraints that prove to be very challenging,” said Lipsey.

Building a new school comes with a separate set of requirements, the first being allocation of land for the facility. A new high school would require about 60 usable acres, a middle school about 35, and 20 for elementary. As of this writing, the county owns two parcels that would be adequate for a new elementary or middle school, one on Lake Lindsey Rd (30 usable acres) and one on McKethan Road (40 usable acres).

Lipsey estimates construction of a new school building with a 2,500-student capacity would cost approximately $145 – $180 million, including land acquisition. An addition to an existing school for 500 additional students would cost the county an estimated $11.4 million at Weeki Wachee High School. “The data clearly shows that building a classroom addition in multiple locations really would be the more prudent and fiscally responsible approach,” said Lipsey. Currently, Weeki Wachee, Hernando, and Central High Schools can support classroom additions.

The next presentation on the workshop agenda was about low impact fees affecting the school district. Christopher Wilson of CJ Wilson Law presented. The school board relies on impact fees governed by the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) for a large part of its budget.
Lipsey introduced Wilson by saying, “There’s been lots of discussion about impact fees needing to be higher, but we face limited (school) capacity, and we will start getting into proportionate share mitigation agreements. We really need to think about the consequences that low impact fees have on those future discussions as we move forward.”

According to Florida Statutes sections 163.3161, 163.3177, and 1013.33, each local government’s comprehensive plan must include educational facilities in its capital improvement plans. Wilson reported that a study conducted in 2019 supported the educational portion of the total impact fee by statute on a single-family detached home at $6,352. In 2020, the current rate adopted by the county results in an impact fee of $3,176.
“You’re currently at about half of what (the school district) should be collecting pursuant to the 2019 study,” Wilson stated.

The rate was again studied in 2020 and found to be statutorily supported at $8,764. The BOCC proposes an increase in 2023 that results in $3,298. If the BOCC increases impact fees to the maximum allowed by statute, the resulting amount would be $4,764. “It’s still a little more than half, but not quite where you need to be for funding the growth that’s going to happen in your district,” said Wilson.

Wilson explained that the school board can still work with the county to increase the education portion of impact fees to 50 percent without citing special circumstances, regardless of other components of the total impact fee. Currently, the BOCC plans to raise the school district portion by $122. If the district’s impact fee is raised by the maximum of 50 percent, its portion is increased to $1,588.

Not only a fiscal problem, Wilson noted that school concurrency is also affected by the combination of low impact fees and unprecedented growth.
According to Wilson, the school district’s next steps should be to authorize a Memorandum to the BOCC, justifying an educational impact fee of $4,764. Additionally, the District should draft proposed changes to the Interlocal Agreement and consider other actions to finance the District’s burgeoning student population.

Board member Shannon Rodriguez is optimistic that the school board can work effectively with the BOCC, possibly receiving a portion of a one-half-cent sales tax if passed by voters in 2024.

Chairman Gus Guadagnino remained cautious. “I think we’re going to have a battle on our hands. There’s people in politics that make decisions that think we do everything wrong and wouldn’t feel bad if we just fell apart. To put the weight on the local people that are here already isn’t the right thing to do, and we don’t agree on that. I don’t know why, but some of them take the stance that it’s not fair for the people that are coming here. Yeah, it’s fair. They’re the ones causing it. For some reason, we cannot get along.” The information presented during this workshop will be shared with the BOCC and the State Representatives.

Guadagnino added, “I have been (a school board member) over ten years. I’ve never had a county commissioner, representative, state legislator come to me and say, ‘What can we do to help?’ Let’s give them all the information they need. Maybe we can work together.”

Wilson concluded by commenting on the novel challenges facing both the BOCC and school district, “This county hasn’t gotten to the point yet where you’ve had growth, and you’ve had to deal with this kind of a process. You’re just coming to it … it hasn’t been an issue we’ve had to solve yet.”

Lisa MacNeil
Lisa MacNeil
Lisa MacNeil is a reporter for the Hernando Sun as well as a business technology developer, specializing in website development, content management systems, and data analysis.
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