Tallahassee, FL - With Florida’s budget already in a deep hole, state lawmakers got another round of sobering news Monday with analysts reporting that public schools are poised for their largest enrollment spike in six years.
Another 16,946 students are expected to crowd Florida classrooms next fall, increasing the demand for dwindling dollars even as legislators struggle to close a spending gap likely to top $3 billion. The enrollment jump marks the third consecutive year of rising student counts, and could demand an additional $115.8 million in classroom dollars, based on current funding levels.
“We’re going to work very hard to maintain our funding in Pre-K-12,” said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, chairman of the Senate’s school budget committee. “But enrollment growth is clearly one more pressure in an already difficult year.”
Florida has more than 2.6 million public school students. And with school funding absorbing $18 billion of the state’s $70 billion budget, lawmakers have been trying to trim costs as the economy soured.
This year’s budget includes an average $1.22 per-student spending increase, a modest set-aside that may be tough to match as legislators face a tough economy unaided by federal stimulus money that pumped more than $3 billion into the current spending plan.
If there’s a silver lining to the gathering clouds, rising school enrollment does suggest that Florida’s economy may be steadying, officials said. For three straight years ending in 2008-09, Florida schools lost enrollment as layoffs and the collapse of the construction industry forced a decline in the state’s population for the first time since shortly after World War II.
“The decline does seem to have ended and we may be seeing a little bit of a turnaround,” said Stan Smith, director of the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida. “The school increase is very small. But we’ve also seen a slight increase in employment numbers and a rise in residential electric customers. People are no longer leaving Florida the way they were.”
Lawmakers last spring actually budgeted for slightly more students than arrived in state classrooms. Analysts said in their report that about 9,512 more students were in public schools than a year earlier – although lawmakers had expected that increase to be 15,796 students.
A year earlier, 11,911 students entered schools – a dramatic reversal from the 13,905-student decline that marked the 2008-09 budget year when the recession hardened.
“For Florida, this is actually a good sign,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who doubles as executive director of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. “It’s a sign that the bad economy has broken a bit. But it is more pressure on the budget.”
The numbers released by education forecasters will be used by Gov.-elect Rick Scott to build his first budget proposal, to be unveiled to lawmakers in February. Lawmakers, however, will get an enrollment update that month that they will work off when they develop the state’s 2011-12 spending plan during next spring’s legislative session.
In his campaign for governor, Scott raised alarms among many school officials by promising to cut $1.4 billion in property taxes now going to finance public schools. While Scott insisted he wants to rebalance the state’s budget and jump-start the economy to boost school dollars, he would lower the required local effort levy by $1 – to an average $4.29 per $1,000 in assessed valuation.
Along with the increased demand of rising enrollment, the state’s Education Department recently reported that 35 Florida school districts are not complying with the state’s class-size law and may face potentially millions of dollars in penalties. The Florida School Boards Association has threatened to sue, maintaining the fines are unfair. Districts have until Dec. 17 to appeal the results.
“We’re not going to see the kind of enrollment increases we did in the 1990s,” said Ruth Melton, a lobbyist for the Florida School Boards Association. “But we’re trying to manage class-size even as we are starting to see increases that are coming up again toward the 20,000-student level. It’s a very difficult situation for the districts.”