It has been a startling demographic countercurrent: Over the past 17 years, Flagler County’s population has increased by a third, from 90,000 to 120,000 people, including torrid growth in Palm Coast. Over the same stretch, enrollment in the Flagler County school district’s nine traditional schools has barely budged. If anything, it’s down by about 100 students from its 2008 peak, based on the first three days of the new school year.
Net public school enrollment the first day of school last week was 13,578, up by a little over 100 students from this time last year. By today, enrollment had ticked up to 13,615.
But net enrollment does not reflect the number of students in the district’s nine brick-and-mortar schools. The figure includes the 867 students at Imagine School at Town center, the privately run, publicly funded charter school that opened in 2008 and that has enrolled roughly 900 students a year. The net enrollment figure also includes 185 students who are attending school virtually. Some of those students in some courses get to see their Flagler-based teacher in person on an as-needed basis. But generally, the students are at home, working at their computers, not using what the district refers to as “student stations” at the nine schools.
Remove the charter and virtual school students from the equation, and you’re left with 12,563 students–about 200 students more than but the same number as the year just before Covid shut down schools.
The enrollment numbers, a district spokesman said today, “are right about where we projected them. What we’ve found is that after the pandemic years, a number of families found they had success in a virtual learning environment. As a school district, we are fortunate to have one of the top FLVS franchises in the state and a number of teachers who are comfortable with offering online learning for these families. It allows these students the independence they need, as well as getting the support right here they may need.”
FLVS is Florida Virtual School, the tuition-free K-12 online school that long predated Covid (it enrolled its first students in 1997). FLVS in 2021-22 served nearly 12,000 full-time students and 229,000 students who enrolled at least partially, including 2,000 from Flagler County–a figure that begins to suggest where some of those students not in traditional public schools are learning. Those students completed the equivalent of 6,000 semesters’ work between them.
In December, district officials reported that private and parochial school enrollment of Flagler County students was at 1,757, while home school enrollment was at 1,200. Starting this year, each of these students, and any others who may find room in private schools or in homeschooling environments, are eligible for up to $8,000 per student in public money, in the form of vouchers, as a result of Florida’s latest expansion of the allowance. (See: “As Florida Floods Private Schools with Public Money, Schools Raise Tuition to Capitalize.”)
Another caveat: While Flagler County was among the 100-fastest growing counties in the country between the 2010 and 2020 Census, the county’s population aged sharply: in 2010, 19 percent of the population was younger than 18, while just 24 percent was 65 or over. By 2020, 30.7 percent of the population was 65 and over, while those younger than 18 fell to 16.9 percent. The school age population barely grew in that span, but the 65-and-older population grew by 12,000. Those trends have not changed: Flagler County is still attracting retirees or people beyond child-bearing age in disproportionate numbers, becoming more like The Villages than like, say, Miami, where only 16 percent of the population is 65 and older, and 20 percent are younger than 18. (See: “Flagler Was Among U.S.’ 100-Fastest Growing Counties in Last 10 Years; Population of 115,000 Aged Sharply.”)
Still, enrollment has significant implications, because it controls state funding, which will not increase. It controls whether the district may justifiably ask for an increase in development impact fees that defray the cost of new schools, a justification that yet again appears to be lacking. It is a direct factor in rezoning decisions, some of which te district delayed last year. It controls where and when the district should build a new school.
Finally, it is an indicator of whether the district is attracting its share of students in proportion with the district’s growth, when other options, from private and parochial schools to home-schooling and virtual school, are available. So while the extent of additional options is not a mystery, the question remains: why–while St. Johns County continues to see its public schools thrive and grow–are students finding those options more attractive than Flagler schools despite the district’s efforts to erase school-zone boundaries with school choice? (One seemingly obvious answer is: St. Johns schools are the best in the state year after year. Flagler County’s are not.)
Two years ago, as the district was hoping to double its development impact fees, it commissioned TischlerBise, a leading consultancy in the field, to provide the required study that must precede any increase in impact fees, assuming the study finds justification for an increase. Flagler schools were starting from behind regardless: in inflation-adjusted dollars, the district’s impact fees had fallen significantly behind where they were set the last time they were changed, in 2005. That aside, however, impact fees are intended to defray the cost of growth on the school district.
TischlerBise in July 2021 estimated that by the 2029-30 school year, Flagler schools’ traditional campuses would have an enrollment of 14,345. The figure for 2023 was projected at 12,758, and for 2024, at 13,005. For now, the district is falling short overall–but not across the board. For example, the consultants estimated that the district’s two high schools would have an enrollment of 4,500 this year. Current numbers exceed that by 144 (the district is building an addition at Matanzas High School to accommodate growth).
Elementary school enrollment is falling short of the consultant’s predictions, if by less than 100 students, but middle school enrollment is falling short by almost 33 students. The district had projected a need for a new middle school in 2025. It has pushed back that need, with surging private school and home school enrollment a direct reason. (See: “Surging Private and Home School Enrollment Shelves One of Flagler District’s 2 Planned New Schools for Now.”)
It’s still early: the first weeks of school aren’t necessarily a reflection of October enrollment, when the state makes its first official enrollment calculation, using it to determine each district’s funding. But while enrollment has typically risen a little in previous years later in fall, it has also fallen as each year progressed. At the end of the 2021-22 school year, for example, the district’s enrollment in its nine schools had fallen to 11,892, with 265 students online.
After fierce resistance from the Flagler County Home Builders Association and the County Commission, the School Board scaled back its impact fee increase to $5,450 per single-family home, essentially matching inflation since 2005. The fee was to increase by $500 with each incremental increase of 500 enrolled students (presumably in brick and mortar schools, not in online environments). That increase seems elusive for now.