Florida districts are closing underused schools. Pinellas and Pasco aren’t. Why? (2024)

Facing tight finances and shrinking student enrollment, K-12 districts across Florida are making the politically unpopular move of shutting down schools.

After a year of stop-and-go planning along with dissent on the school board, Hillsborough closed one elementary school in 2023, made districtwide boundary changes for the coming school year and closed five more schools.

The Miami-Dade County school board voted Tuesday to close two underenrolled schools, while the board in neighboring Broward County agreed to shutter at least five schools by fall 2025. Duval County school officials have proposed closing as many as 30 schools to bridge a $1.4 billion budget gap.

Pinellas and Pasco counties have undercapacity schools, too. They also face budgetary constraints from rising costs and the end of federal pandemic relief funds.

Yet discussion over school closures has not roiled these two districts in the same way it has elsewhere.

Nobody is talking, for instance, about the two Pinellas high schools within 3 miles of each other — Gibbs and Boca Ciega — sitting half full while St. Petersburg High, also within 3 miles, hovers around 98% capacity. Few in the community would entertain closing the “cultural institution” that a high school represents to its neighborhoods, Superintendent Kevin Hendrick said.

Conversation over whether to close Pasco’s rural Lacoochee Elementary, also half full and shrinking, ran into a wall six years ago and has not returned to the school board, which considers the idea harmful to the community the school serves.

Officials in each district say they have less divisive ways to deal with capacity questions.

“It’s a sensitive topic that we have to look at carefully,” said Betsy Kuhn, Pasco’s assistant superintendent for support services.

Shrinking Pinellas

Unlike Hillsborough and Pasco, which have fast-growing regions and increasing competition from charter schools and voucher programs, Pinellas is experiencing a slow and steady enrollment decrease.

Its student count has dipped by more than 12,000 over the past decade — not because of mass migration to other schools but primarily because the population is aging as the birth rate declines. This past year, the district graduated about 7,400 seniors and welcomed about 6,200 kindergartners, Hendrick said, explaining how the trend will likely continue.

As a result, though about a quarter of the district’s schools sit at or above 85% capacity, nearly half of the campuses are at less than 70%, according to district data, with about a tenth of those at 50% or less.

“There is a lot of shrinking going on in Pinellas County,” board member Lisa Cane said. “Rather than just closing, we’re repurposing to benefit the community.”

Florida districts are closing underused schools. Pinellas and Pasco aren’t. Why? (1)

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That means putting space to better use, rather than letting it sit vacant. For instance, Gibbs and Boca Ciega high schools provide health department clinics for their neighborhoods, and most elementary schools have added prekindergarten and 3-year-old programs that don’t count as official enrollment but bring more children into classrooms.

Two moves announced in the past year generated little pushback.

In April, the administration unveiled a plan to close the Pinellas Secondary alternative school, which had 79 students, sending them to other campuses that also had open seats. It then will convert the school in Pinellas Park to a child care center for employees.

Florida districts are closing underused schools. Pinellas and Pasco aren’t. Why? (2)

In May, district officials told the school board it would merge neighboring Walsingham and Southern Oak elementary schools, which were at 55% and 71% of capacity respectively, into a single K-8 campus.

Over time, the district has closed some traditional schools, as it did with Riviera Middle during the financial downturn of 2008. It also has found ways to reenter resurgent areas in different ways, such as a new YMCA partnership school in the spot where Riviera once stood.

As school enrollments have declined, the district has reduced staffing accordingly, said 24-year school board member Carol Cook. All of which has kept costs in line, allowing Pinellas to avoid debt and maintain a relatively stable environment.

Hendrick said he was hopeful that workforce housing initiatives in areas where schools have shrunk, such as near Lakewood Elementary in south St. Petersburg (59% capacity) and McMullen Booth Elementary in Clearwater (52%), will bring more students. With that possibility, he said, it isn’t the best idea to shutter an underused school that might be needed within a few years.

Pasco officials share that viewpoint.

Growing Pasco

Pasco is one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties by raw count, according to the U.S. Census. The school district’s enrollment has climbed by about 17,000 students during the past decade, with projections anticipating another 13,000 by 2032.

More than half the district’s high schools exceed 90% capacity, and it has started collaborating with charter schools to get more classrooms built quickly. The school board is asking the county commission to raise school impact fees by nearly 50% to help cope with the continued increase.

Still, Pasco has pockets of decline near the U.S. 19 corridor, where four middle schools sit below 75% capacity and a handful of elementary schools with adjacent boundaries have dipped close to 60%.

In recent years, officials have taken steps to address underused campuses.

They closed the aging Moore-Mickens Education Center 10 years ago, converted Ridgewood High School into a career-technical high school six years ago, shuttered long-struggling Hudson Elementary four years ago and reassigned all students out of Mittye P. Locke Elementary two years ago, transforming the campus into an early learning center.

Florida districts are closing underused schools. Pinellas and Pasco aren’t. Why? (3)

“We continue to look at the capacity of schools and recommend closures when it’s appropriate,” Superintendent Kurt Browning said, adding that he remains open to revisiting Lacoochee’s status if he can get board support.

The effort has its limits, though, Browning said, because of the rapid growth.

For example, he sounded reluctant to close Crews Lake Middle in Shady Hills, which has been around half full since it opened, except for the year it housed Shady Hills Elementary while that school was renovated. Growth is moving north along U.S. 41, meaning the impact is coming to Crews Lake, he said.

Similarly, he and other officials did not want to consolidate other schools or otherwise reduce the inventory too much for the same reasons.

“What happens when we need that space?” board chairperson Megan Harding said.

At the same time, they’ve had little appetite to redraw attendance zones to better balance enrollment, following acrimonious attempts to do so in 2016 and 2017. Better, they suggested, to keep the long view in mind and act accordingly.

Candidates to replace Browning, who’s retiring as superintendent in November, said they would focus on providing programs that attract more students to the underused schools, rather than closing them.

Florida districts are closing underused schools. Pinellas and Pasco aren’t. Why? (2024)
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