Hillsborough County’s role in education is not specified in law since we have a separate school board that is responsible for the functioning of our countywide school system. Florida countywide school districts are unique in the country and while there are benefits, there are also challenges associated with such large systems. Hillsborough County is the 8th largest school district in the country. The size and complexity of our system creates the need for greater cooperation between our county and school board.

The tie between what is being taught in our schools and the compatibility with our community vision to create better jobs in the future is very important. We need to have our private sector, local government, and the school board working together to make sure we are on the same page in what type of well educated and well trained work force is needed to support growing our local economy. Our governments can’t be in silos rather, we need to have as much interaction as possible. Our Head Start early education programs shared by the county and the school board need to be as coordinated as possible to make sure ALL students are well prepared to start school.

Another opportunity to improve the school experience is for the county to help improve the walking and biking connections between schools and neighborhoods, This can be done by prioritizing safe routes to school projects and helping with general sidewalk construction to make sure all our schools and bus stops are connected to neighborhoods with safe, clear paths.

An ongoing challenge in our schools is that our high school graduation rates are on the low side compared with other competitive metropolitan areas. While the graduation rates have been rising in recent years, this is an issue that has impacts beyond the school years and into the ability for our citizens to earn a descent living. There is a large earning gap between those without a high school education and those with one. We need programs that can help keep our children in school until they graduate. Supporting the school district in expanding career and technical education opportunities for students not planning to enroll in college is one step. This might be something that our county, school board, and private sector companies need to work on together if we are going to be successful as a community.

We are not going to be a prosperous community without a strong educated work force therefore whatever we can do as a community to enhance and improve the school experience the better off we will all be. This responsibility extends beyond just the school board and requires the support of both the private sector and county government to make the system work better.

Another area that county government has responsibility is making sure there is a connection between impacts of growth in the community and the funding to construct the schools needed to support that growth. The school impact fee is the tool that Hillsborough County controls to make that connection. It is in no one’s interest for the school district not to be able to build the schools needed in the future to accommodate the projected growth of our county. We need to make sure the appropriate funding relationship is in place to address the impacts and needs that population growth requires.

These challenges of education need to dealt with together with county government and the private sector being as supportive as is realistically possible to making our schools successful in creating good, productive citizens in the future. Hillsborough County’s future absolutely depends on it.

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Ray Seal