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Florida schools seek help amid a ‘disturbing’ decline in enrollment

POLITICO logo POLITICO 9/24/2020 By Andrew Atterbury
a group of young men playing a game of frisbee in a yard: Students return to school at Seminole Heights Elementary School in Tampa, Fla. © Octavio Jones/Getty Images Students return to school at Seminole Heights Elementary School in Tampa, Fla.

TALLAHASSEE — Teachers and school leaders in Florida are seeking financial protection from the state Department of Education in light of “disturbing” declining enrollment that threatens to sink school budgets this year.

The Florida Education Association on Friday joined a panel of school financial officers asking the state to fund schools at current levels throughout 2020-21 even though fewer students have enrolled in classes. Union leaders described “chaos” as educators quit classrooms to avoid teaching in-person and online students at the same time during a pandemic.

“If you’re going to commit to opening schools, you have to commit the resources to make it happen,” Dan Smith, president of the Seminole Education Association, told reporters. “You can’t just make it superficial.”

Florida school districts — including charter schools — are reporting hundreds of fewer students enrolling this fall compared to last year, a trend that is hitting kindergarten especially hard.

In Pinellas County, 1,320 fewer students are enrolled compared to this time last year. More than half of those students — approximately 700 — would have been incoming kindergartners.

Based on the state’s current per-child funding level, the loss of those 1,320 students would trigger a $10.3 million funding hit to Pinellas schools.

Similar scenarios are playing out across the state, according to the Florida Finance Council, a group of school CFOs. In many cases, students likely have started homeschooling, gone to private schools, or delaying the start of school due to the coronavirus.

“School district personnel are aggressively trying to locate these students to ensure they will receive instruction but we do not know when or if they will return,” Gretchen Saunders, the finance council president, wrote in a letter to the Department of Education on Tuesday.

Such enrollment declines would have set local budgets aflame in a normal year, but Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in July guaranteed schools their full amount of state funding regardless of fall enrollment.


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The funding was a provision of the state’s emergency school reopening order, which was challenged by the FEA in a bitter legal battle that is still playing out in court.

The FEA and education leaders now want the order extended through the 2020-21 school year.

Taryn Fenske, a spokesperson for DOE, issued a written statement saying Corcoran and Gov. Ron DeSantis would do what‘s in the best interests of students, parents and educators. She also took a political swipe at the FEA for its challenge of the July order.

“It is clear that the FEA is admitting defeat, as they are now requesting that certain provisions in the Department of Education’s emergency order remain intact — the same emergency order they sued to get thrown out,” Fenske wrote.

Fenske did not address the drop in enrollment or whether the financial relief will be extended.

District administrators warn that they will have to make staffing and program cuts to survive a loss of funding later this year. Union leaders say schools already are holding back money in anticipation of cuts down the line.

In Seminole County, north of Orlando, 19 teachers have quit this school year, including one who left Thursday after three days on the job, Smith said.

The shortage of educators has kept class sizes the same as last year, meaning students are packed into classrooms during the pandemic even as teachers are simultaneously lead classes online.

Some teachers in grades 6-12 have 25 students in class and another 20 learning remotely, Smith said. In one extreme case, an art teacher has 330 students, he said.

Retirements, resignations and especially leaves of absence are on the rise this year, according to the FEA.

Hillsborough County typically sees about 150 requests for leave a year but are now is looking at over 500, FEA President Andrew Spar told reporters Friday.

“It’s not just the health concerns,” Spar said. “It’s the stress and anxiety.”

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