Blackboard Bungle

In an era of overcrowded classrooms, who would build a school in a town with no children? The Palm Beach County School Board, that's who.

At 7:30 a.m. as school buses rattle down Palm Beach County roads carrying sleepy children to school each day, the work crew at the future home of the Morikami Elementary School has already arrived.

Now a slate gray, two-story edifice on a dirt road west of Delray Beach, the county's newest elementary school is expected to be completed by February. That's great news for Palm Beach County's overcrowded schools -- except for one thing. Surrounding the site of the future Morikami Elementary School -- a school that the Palm Beach County School District has held in the works for more than ten years -- there are, according to demographic studies of the region, essentially no children.

To the north along Jog Road, $500,000 homes now under construction give way to clusters of gated retirement communities with names like Kings Point. A few miles to the south, Jog Road leads quickly to west Boca Raton and the Polo Club, where many of the wealthy families in the high-priced and gated subdivisions send children to private schools.

Faced with this hard reality, the district must now figure out how to entice parents to send their children to this new school. While South Florida parents bemoan on a daily basis the fact that their kids go to school in trailers, eat lunch at 10 a.m., and run through the rain to find a bathroom, the school should be considered a godsend by local parents. But a lot of parents don't want to ship their kids all over the county to get to school.

Sending kids to Morikami would alleviate most of the overcrowding at west Boca Raton's Calusa, Sandpiper Shores, and several other elementary schools.

"Basically they need every school they can get," says Dave Florance, a parent and the president of the county's Council of Parent Teacher Associations.

That's easy for him to say. Florance's daughter, a fifth grader at Sandpiper Shores, won't be one of the approximately 350 students who could get transferred to Morikami.

But in some residential developments parents may be told their kids need to travel five or six miles to get to school rather than the two miles they now travel to go to Sandpiper.

The new school was first placed at the Morikami location because of a district agreement with the federal government to integrate public schools, Florance says. By building in a central county location, district officials reasoned it would be easier to bus children of different races from wherever they happened to live within the region than to integrate existing schools. Population-growth patterns never worked out as expected, and though the school will be ready to go by the next school year, district officials still don't know who is going to attend.

Assigning blame for the problem is difficult now. Most of the people making the decisions today weren't around in 1986 when the land was purchased.

"Whatever decisions were made were done before I was here," says Cynthia Pino, an associate superintendent who joined the district a year ago and will help determine the best use of the school.

"The only part that I was involved in was the establishment of the original attendance zones," says Linda Hines, who joined the school staff in 1987, one year after the board acquired the ten-acre plot of land on Jog Road.

Now the acting director of planning and real estate, Hines said she drew up the boundary lines three years ago that showed which neighborhood children would attend the school. To say the lines approved by the board last year were unpopular would be an understatement. Simply put, parents wanted their children to attend schools in their neighborhood. The homes under construction near Morikami are unlikely to draw many children who will attend public schools.

As Palm Beach County Commission Chairperson Burt Aaronson noted recently, none of the mostly octogenarian residents of Kings Point are having babies. And earlier this year, developers convinced Aaronson and other commissioners that any houses built in the soon-to-be developed areas of west Delray Beach would be too expensive for most families with small children. In the opinion of those developers, families who could afford the homes would pay for private school as well.

A case in point is the Grande Orchid Estates, an 89-home subdivision now under construction with prices up to $700,000. Sixty percent of the 30 homes sold will house families with school-aged children, says Betty Abrams, a sales executive. But she says Grande Orchid children will probably go to private schools. "Most of them think that for elementary and middle school it's almost a necessity to put them in private schools," she says.

The residents at the now-under-construction Crystal Bay at Polo Club, less than a block north of the school, will mostly be retirees or empty nesters moving into large, upscale homes, says Bruce Kanov, Crystal Bay vice president. Prices for the three bedroom-plus homes start just below $500,000 and are also unlikely to draw many families with school-aged children. Still, he says, the school might be needed there. "Obviously if they're building it," Kanov says, "I guess they need it."

Parents thought otherwise. Last year they urged the board to abandon plans for the school. But the district stood its ground. It had spent more than $1 million in planning the $13 million school, and it already owned the land. District officials believed the rapid development outside of the cities would spur additional need for schools.

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