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Florida reporters talk about the state's shrinking public school districts

The Hillsborough County School Board voted to close Just Elementary in West Tampa on May 9, 2023.
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The Hillsborough County School Board voted to close Just Elementary in West Tampa on May 9, 2023.

Although Florida’s population is increasing, the number of students in its public schools is decreasing.

Duval County Public Schools has 30,000 fewer students than it did a decade ago. It's now considering a plan to close nearly 30 schools.

Megan Mallicoat, education reporter for Jacksonville Today, said an outside consultant recommended closing schools after taking a broad view of the school system.

“And they decided that it could be more efficient than it already is, is what the district is saying, that there's lots of schools that their feeder plans don't feed, like an elementary school might feed to a couple different middle schools or a couple different high schools. And so they wanted to consolidate it,” Mallicoat said Friday on The Florida Roundup. She noted the consulting firm didn’t look at the schools themselves.

The recommendation for the closures comes down to funding, according to Mallicoat. She said the funding decisions most affecting Jacksonville are coming from the state.

“When COVID hit, what (Duval County Public Schools) had expected, the funding that they had expected to have changed. Because we saw more students opt for charter schools, more students opt to use the new private school vouchers. And so the funding that's coming into the district doesn't necessarily get to fund its traditional schools,” Mallicoat said.

In response, members of the public in Duval have rallied around keeping schools open.

“… You see groups of community members coming from lots of these schools that have been put on the chopping block, so to speak. And I was at the school board meeting earlier this week. And you saw just groups from all these schools coming up, probably saw at least a half a dozen schools represented in the people that had come out,” Mallicoat said.

“They had signs that said, ‘save our school,’ and ... they brought their students with them to show, and it was interesting to me to watch the schools come together and be the neighborhood community group that they are.”

"... It was interesting to me to watch the schools come together and be the neighborhood community group that they are." Megan Mallicoat
Megan Mallicoat

There have been similar responses to schools closing throughout Florida. Hillsborough County closed an elementary school in 2023, citing a lack of teachers and underperforming students. It’s closing five more schools by the end of the 2023-24 school year.

“In terms of community opposition, there was a lot more of that last year when they were redrawing boundaries throughout the district,” Marlene Sokol, education reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, said on "The Florida Roundup." “This year, one of the elementary schools, there were some people who came out publicly opposing it. But what's done is done, and once the superintendent started reassigning the principals of these five schools into their next assignment, people kind of realized there wasn't anything they could do.”

Like Duval, Hillsborough County Public Schools is dealing with low enrollment, with some schools half-empty. Sokol said it’s due to school vouchers, magnet schools and the growth of charter schools.

“But this has been going on for years, and I've watched the growth in charter schools exponentially every year. Now they educate about 17% of the public school students in Hillsborough County where, when I first came on the job, it was like 6% or 7%,” Sokol explained.

It’s akin to what’s happening in Broward as well.

“Over the past decade, Broward’s traditional public schools have lost more than 20,000 students, while enrollment in charter and private schools continues to grow,” Kate Payne, education reporter for WLRN, said on "The Florida Roundup."

Broward County Public Schools has nearly 50,000 empty seats. It’s considering a proposal to close three schools, although that’s still in development. Payne said the district is taking on the effort since it can’t keep paying for half-empty schools. There are other factors at play, too, such as school performance.

“Sheer enrollment, demographic shifts in the surrounding neighborhoods. Are families moving there? Are they having children, fewer children? As well as the historic significance of schools, and also factors like if we close Elementary School A, is there capacity in the surrounding schools to take those students in?” Payne said.

Community members in Broward have also been vocal about keeping schools intact, including at a recent town hall in Fort Lauderdale.

“A huge showing from especially one elementary school in particular that's not identified for closure, but would get a program change, among dozens of other schools across the district. And parents and students, teachers from that school, Virginia Shuman Young (Elementary) in Fort Lauderdale, were vocally opposed, jeering down one of the district officials and just really passionate about their school,” Payne said.

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Gabriella Pinos
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