In early May, the Flagler County School Board looked like it was in panic mode. It was projecting a drop in enrollment and a serious erosion of dollars, with a net operating loss of $1.8 million when all was accounted for.
The projected loss was a central pillar of the school district’s argument to voters that they should approve a late-breaking referendum and agree to raise their property taxes modestly to compensate. The district was asking for the renewal of an existing tax and the addition of a new tax, for a combined 50 cents per $1,000 in taxable value. The combination would have raised an additional $3.2 million to $4 million a year, though only half of that would be “new” revenue, since voters were already paying the other half.
Meanwhile, and even though the district was getting an extra $5.3 million in state dollars, the school board went to work cutting more than $1 million just in case the referendum did not pass. It was a wise move. The referendum failed, with 57 percent of voters opposed, the first time in recent memory that a school tax referendum had failed in the county.
As it turns out, that defeat may not have as dire a consequence as the district projected, given the new numbers.
In May, School District Finance Director Tom Tant had explained to the board how it faced hardship despite that new $5.3 million from the state. Much of that new money was already accounted for–$1.2 million for a mandated increase in contributions to the Florida Retirement System, $2.1 million for planned teacher raises, and half a million dollars for contributions to Daytona State College, to account for students enrolled in the district and in college.
The state was projecting an enrollment of 12,765 students in Flagler, with each student getting an allocation of $6,316.55.
Tant told the board in May that the state was likely overstating the enrollment figure by 283 students. It was never clear how that figure was reached, other than a few months’ trend. But Tant urged the board to budget on a loss of 283 students for the current year. That loss would equate to $1.8 million.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the first solid calculations of the new school year, two weeks in: that loss never materialized. In fact, enrollment has increased slightly, by about 10 students.
The district’s enrollment after two weeks of school stands at 12,772. That includes the 915 students at Imagine School at Town Center and at Palm Harbor Academy, the district’s two charter schools. Those are publicly funded schools, but they’re privately run. That means that the district’s loss of students to charter schools has also stopped, at least for now. (It helped that Global Outreach Academy, what would have been the third charter, closed its doors last Christmas, returning most of its 122 students to traditional schools. The district is reviewing the applications of at least two new charter schools for next year.)
That 17,772 is a handful of students more than the state was budgeting for Flagler. The district had 12,765 students enrolled at the end of last year, including the 1,000-odd students in the district’s two charter schools.
More to the point: That $1.8 million will be in the budget this year. (It actually already was, and would not have been withdrawn until after Christmas, had the enrollment drop materialized.)
Superintendent Janet Valentine said the district has already re-hired 10 teachers who had been told last May that they may not have a job this year.
There are n dramatic changes in enrollment at most schools. Flagler Palm Coast High School saw its enrollment increase by 150, for a total of 2,401. Matanzas High School added a little more than 50 students. Imagine added 45. But every elementary school lost some students. (See the full chart below.)
To be sure, the district is not in the clear. Last August the district began the school year with 300 more students than it ended it. Some of that erosion is normal. But the district doesn’t yet know whether the loss in students has bottomed out–or whether it should consider closing schools.
The certainty of that $1.8 million also means that the district will not have to dip into its reserves for that money, as it had projected it would. (“Without the additional funds,” Andy Dance, the school board chairman, had written in his defense of the referendum last spring, “the district will be removing another $1.7 million from our reserve fund, and by the end of next year, our reserves will be at 5 percent (the bottom of our Board ‘safe’ range). This is not a sustainable path and gives us no wiggle room to accommodate unforeseen challenges down the road. Programs and services that we were able to save this year will not be as lucky next year.”)
Dance added: “The additional funds allow us the time to see if the current eight month trend in reduced enrollment is a temporary adjustment or a long term problem. Currently, the loss of enrollment adds pressure for the Board to consider school closures. With the disruption to families, staff and the community that accompanies a school closure, we need to make sure we get this right. If the enrollment trend stops and becomes just a short term drop, approval of the referendum allows us a little more time to see if enrollment will stabilize and allow student population to naturally increase again as the economy continues to improve.”
The most recent figures suggest that stabilization is taking place, reducing pressure on the board to think of school closures.
Flagler County School Enrollment, 2011-2014
|Enrollment at End of May 2011||First-Day Enrollment, August 2011||Certified Enrollment, Feb. 2012||Enrollment at End of May, 2013||Enrollment at end of May 2014||Enrollment on Sept. 15, 2014|
|Belle Terre Elementary||1504||1424||1400||1357||1343||1329 (-14)|
|Buddy Taylor Middle||1008||1013||980||1006||1033||1002 (-31)|
|Bunnell Elementary||1306||1224||1228||1290||1281||1235 (-46)|
|Flagler-Palm Coast High||2155||2485||2338||2247||2306||2442 (+136)|
|Imagine at Town Center||520||809||815||867||896||906 (+10)|
|Indian Trails Middle||892||914||875||806||869||909 (+40)|
|Matanzas High||1485||1606||1587||1566||1576||1606 (+30)|
|Old Kings Elementary||1142||1142||1134||1131||1111||1106 (-5)|
|Palm Harbor Academy||92||101||112||66||63||66 (+3)|
|Phoenix Academy||66||72||68||65||79||71 (-8)|
|Rymfire Elementary||1379||1298||1317||1307||1268||1172 (-96)|
|Wadsworth Elementary||931||860||862||879||901||871 (-30)|