Incredible Shrinking Schools

I attended public schools in Coral Springs, and as long as I can remember, public schools in Broward County have been bursting at the seams. Portable classrooms have dotted fields meant for recess. Student over-enrollment was an epidemic that the county just couldn't cure.

I remember then-mayor of Coral Springs, Jeanne Mills, paying a visit to my middle school classroom to gripe about the poor planning she thought was at the heart of the matter. The city was growing like a turkey on steroids, and she didn't see how the schools could ever accommodate all the young students the new homes would attract. Our little suburb was pushing ever further into the Everglades, sucking the swampland dry. The mayor was at her wits' end. She told my class that she felt pressured to sign off on new subdivisions, knowing full-well that there weren't enough classrooms for the children of families moving into our community. Yet it seemed like a new kid arrived from Brooklyn every week.

Now, finally, Broward school enrollment is shrinking. Data shows that student numbers have declined more than six percent since the 2004-05 school year. Looking ahead, the school board projects that student enrollment will drop even further, with the county catering to 3,194 fewer students in the 2009-10 school year alone. I never thought I'd see the day.

We can blame the economy and South Florida's relatively high standard of living for the departure of some families. We also have finally reached build-out in the western suburbs that border the Everglades.

Broward County's is the sixth-largest school district in the country. The district has lost nearly $250 million to budget cuts in recent years, leaving it with an annual budget of $5 billion. That breaks down to roughly $20,000 per student, on par with tuition at the county's most prestigious private schools.

And yet the school board still says it needs more cash. A few weeks ago the Broward County School Board voted to beg Washington for a financial stimulus package of its very own.

In making its sales pitch, the district has tried to stress how dollars spent on schools trickle through a slew of industries region-wide.

"We're looking for up to $500 million in (construction and refurbishment) projects, essentially, which would have the effect of providing some tangible benefit for the school district while also stimulating the local economy, because it's local contractors and people like that who would be doing the work and providing the product," says Keith Bromery, director of communications for the school district.

Alas, each year Florida schools are required to also shrink their student-to-teacher ratios, which means Broward County must hire more teachers and construct more classrooms. So the school district isn't exactly swimming in cash as enrollment declines. And, as always, older schools in the eastern part of the county continue to see decreasing demand while the newer western communities wonder where to educate all their young 'uns.

--Amy Guthrie


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