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Declining enrollment means Broward schools have to change. Here’s how to shape those decisions

A student sits at a the end of a line of desks in a school classroom. Nearby, other students sit at their desks, while some desks are empty.
Kate Payne
/
WLRN
A student works on an assignment in a classroom at Ponce de Leon Middle School on Sept. 15, 2023.

There are a lot of empty seats in Broward County classrooms — more than 54,000, according to school district data. And officials expect thousands more families to exit the Broward school district next year too.

“[We expect] overall enrollment for district traditional schools to decrease by 4,300 students next year — 4,300 students,” said Judith Marte, the deputy superintendent for finance and operations. “That’s $30 million of revenue we currently have that we don't expect to have next year.”

Years of enrollment declines, a booming market of alternatives to traditional public schools, and the sunset of federal COVID funds funds looming in September of 2024 are pushing Broward officials to make some hard financial decisions — including closing or combining schools.

“We have to understand that the more money we spend on students that aren’t here, the less money we spend on students that are here,” said Broward Superintendent Peter Licata. “We’ve been spending money on empty seats for a long time.”

READ MORE: As schools lose students, Broward's superintendent grapples with possibility of closures

Over the past decade, enrollment in the district’s traditional schools has fallen by more than 20,000 students to 197,000 for the 2023-2024 school year — while enrollment in charter schools has continued to grow.

Meanwhile, the number of Broward students taking advantage of the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarship — for private schools or homeschool programs — has increased more than eight times over.

Licata says it’s time for the district to cut its losses — and face the competition.

“There are not 54,100 students out there for us to regain. So we have to make sure that we’re spending wisely, we’re reducing costs, but more importantly we’re trying to recruit as well,” Licata told the school board on Jan. 30. “We have to offer more for our students.”

District officials want community input

Now, Broward County Public Schools is holding a series of public town halls to get input from the community on how to respond to declining enrollment, demographic shifts and the rapidly shifting education landscape in South Florida — and how best to leverage the district’s resources.

“Some of those costs related to those students leaving the district will go away. We will need to hire fewer staff in certain categories. But not all the costs go away,” Marte said. “As long as we have the same footprint, the electrical costs and the administrative costs all stay the same.”

The district’s community conversations are scheduled for:

  • Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024 at 6 p.m. at Fort Lauderdale High School
  • Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024 at 6 p.m. at J.P. Taravella High School
  • Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024 at 6 p.m. at Charles W. Flanagan High School

The “Redefining Our Schools” effort is meant to “reduce the number of under-enrolled schools to ensure equitable funding and instructional resources across the District”, according to BCPS. Strategies could include closing or combining schools, selling or leasing district properties, or developing new educational programs.

A common approach that other districts have taken is to create more K-8 schools, where elementary and middle school grades are combined under one roof.

Figuring out solutions to recruit more early learners — and keep them enrolled — is a key challenge for the district. BCPS has seen significant enrollment losses among kindergarten through third grade — a trend that’s playing out in other districts across the country, as scores of incoming students never showed up following the onset of the pandemic.

“Just in the last five years, from school year 2020 to now, we are 8,000 students down just in K-3,” said Marte. “Our neighboring districts aren’t facing the same level of enrollment decline that we are. In fact, Palm Beach continues to grow.”

Dozens of Broward schools are below 70% capacity

The district has not yet determined which schools will be closed or combined, but the superintendent has been tasked with coming up with a plan to repurpose at least five schools. Potentially dozens more could be affected in the years to come, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

BCPS has released a list of 67 under-enrolled schools that are currently operating at 70% capacity or less. The list includes 15 schools that are under 50% capacity. According to the district’s tally, the school with the lowest overall enrollment is Pines Middle School, which is at just 34.5% capacity.

“Let’s utilize this opportunity for us to be bold and take the actions necessary,” Licata said. “Our students … the ones we have, the ones we want to bring back, they’re worth it. Empty seats are not worth our money.”

Going forward, the district will take community feedback from the upcoming town halls. Officials are also looking to partner with municipalities, faith organizations and community associations to hold focus groups. Organizations interested in hosting a discussion between February and May can reach out at redefiningbcps@browardschools.com.

The Broward school board is also scheduled to hold workshops on the “Redefining our Schools” initiative on March 20 and May 14. A final board vote on the superintendent’s proposal is slated for June.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: Community conversations about “redefining” Broward County Public Schools

WHEN:

  • Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024 at 6 p.m. at Fort Lauderdale High School
  • Thursday, Feb. 15, 2024 at 6 p.m. at J.P. Taravella High School
  • Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024 at 6 p.m. at Charles W. Flanagan High School

NOTE: All of the events will be livestreamed at www.becon.tv/redefining.

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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