The Flagler County school district will start planning for a third high school during the 2024-25 school year. But plans for a new middle school, originally projected for the end of the decade, have been pushed out beyond that horizon for now as enrollment is not meeting expectations.
“We don’t believe we will grow as fast for the middle school grades and have pushed our middle school out beyond the five-year plan,” Dave Freeman, the district’s facilities director, said.
The district’s enrollment has been stagnant for a decade and a half, hovering around the 12,000 mark for most of that time. That’s not because the school-age population is not growing in Flagler County. It is. But it’s not growing in traditional public schools. Home-schooling has surged 70 percent in five years, to around 1,200 students.
Private school enrollment in private schools, most of them parochial, has also surged 70 percent in the same time span, to 1,757, attracted by public money now handed out to parents to spend on private schools in the state’s ever-expanding “voucher” program. Enrollment at the county’s lone charter school, Imagine at Town center, has remained steady, at just under 900, year after year.
In October, enrollment in the district’s nine traditional public schools was 12,246. Another couple of hundred students attend Flagler’s virtual school, but that’s not in school buildings. That enrollment figure hasn’t budged for some 15 years. But the district’s school-age population is nearly 16,300. Where is that balance of 4,000 students? In non-traditional school settings.
Most of Flagler County’s 17 private schools, as well as Imagine, are kindergarten through eighth grade schools. So when students finish that cycle, they then head for the two public high schools, which offer more choices than any single private school could match, including such programs as the International Baccalaureate at Flagler Palm Coast High School and the Cambridge program at Matanzas. That’s why the district now continues to see relatively stagnant numbers in k-8, with possibly a little growth (all the elementary schools are under capacity, especially after this year’s shift of sixth graders to middle school), but it’s a different story in the high schools. School Board member Colleen Conklin called that shift of students returning to high school a “wild card.”
“That’s the reason why we would see more growth in our high schools than possibly in our elementary or middle schools,” Freeman said.
Flagler Palm Coast High School, already a small city with a combined student, faulty and employee population of 3,000, is at 127 percent of capacity. It will continue to grow, and to exceed capacity, until a new high school is built. Additional portable classrooms will accommodate the overflow meanwhile.
Matanzas High School is at 105 percent of capacity. The district is building an expansion there, adding capacity for 366 students. That’s projected to be completed in the first quarter of 2025.
Attention now turns to a third high school. “Part of the conversation is where does that happen in the next couple of years, a third high school,” Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt said. “That’s significant. That’s a lot of work. Very comprehensive studies need to happen. Location exploration needs to happen. But this is a shift than where we were a year ago. And that’s part of the process and planning with details, is using your data and being ready to be flexible and shift. I think the big thing right now is the shift with the high school as a site. Work to be done.”
Rezoning is an option. But Mittelstadt said the site of the new high school must be decided before the next rezoning discussion.
The school board heard the new work schedule as part of a presentation on the district’s five-year construction and capital improvements plan at a workshop Tuesday. The new numbers were an implicit if muted concession that, as Freeman put it, “we possibly did not grow as much as we had projected,” with a 2021 projection putting district enrolment 1,000 students ahead of where it is now.
That may be a vindication for the Flagler Home Builders Association and other business interests, including the County Commission, that pushed hard against the district’s original plan to double development impact fees. Those are one-time levies on new construction, of several thousand dollars per new home, that help defray the cost of new schools required by added population. The association argued that the students were not materializing. The data presented on Tuesday doesn’t contradict that. But it’s a slightly more complicated picture with caveats.
The district is leaving open the possibility that some of those not attending public school would either change their mind or have to return for one reason or another. Private schools are not necessarily stable. And a new breed of private schools emerging out of the state’s voucher exorbitance–the Flagler district is channeling over $6 million a year to underwrite private school education–is creating the potential for fly-by-night schools with the longevity of new restaurants.
“If there was an event where someone had to shut down, had to close for a day or two or a week,” Mittlestadt said, “those students would need a seat somewhere.”
There are two significant precedents in Flagler on that score: In 2012, the school board forced Heritage Academy, a 180-student, K-12 charter school, to shut down because of chronically poor performance. Most of those students migrated back to the district. The following January, Global Outreach Academy, a charter school that opened five months earlier with immense hype, most of it self-generated, and perhaps with more eagerness than due diligence, suddenly and without explanation shut down on New Year’s Day, leaving 122 students without a school. The district, as always, picked up the pieces.
But those were charter schools, over which the district had a measure of control. It has no control–nor any oversight–over private schools, whose own data is often a mystery to the district and the state. The state sends estimates of enrollment in private schools. The district prefers school by school counts, which it is gathering.
The discussion prompted Board member Sally Hunt to ask the administration to be prepared to present the “story” of needed new schools or buildings in more visually comprehensible ways for the public, because the raw numbers–and the backstory–can be mind-numbing. “This is one that I think arguably people might be paying attention to when we’re talking about building new buildings,” Hunt said. “We’re talking about millions of dollars. That’s different than like, an overnight visit to Ohio or Iowa.”