Friday, March 17, 2023

Boca Student Enrollment Holds Firm Through County Decline & More

Compared to pre-pandemic levels, enrollment in Palm Beach County’s traditional public schools is down by nearly 8,000. But little of that decline is in Boca Raton.

Indeed, based on the school district’s preliminary figures, public investments and other actions have begun to resolve some of the issues regarding crowded campuses. Boca Raton has more students in the right places.

Two years ago, Boca Raton High School had 3,388 students–well over its capacity of roughly 3,000. Parents complained at city council meetings. The council created a board to study crowding at city schools.

This year, enrollment at Boca High is only 68 students above capacity. District and school officials began scrutinizing students’ addresses for “boundary jumpers” who should have been going elsewhere. Added capacity at other high schools also helped. Enrollment at Olympic Heights, which is just outside the city but draws Boca Raton students, is up 300 from 2019. Enrollment at Spanish River High School in northwest Boca is at 2,485, 29 more than two years ago.

No students have gone missing from Calusa Elementary, also in northwest Boca Raton. Enrollment actually has increased since before the pandemic, from 1,156 to 1,242, keeping it over capacity.

But next year, the district is scheduled to open a new elementary school—still unnamed—two-plus miles south of Calusa on Military Trail next to Don Estridge Middle. That school will reduce enrollment at Calusa. The next issue may be Calusa parents complaining about their children being shifted to the new school.

New campuses also appear to have relieved chronic overcrowding at Boca Raton Middle School. Two years ago, it had 1,536 students and was well over capacity. This year, it is slightly under capacity at 1,301 students.

That’s because the former Verde and Addison Mizner elementaries are adding middle-school grades. Verde started with sixth grade last year and added seventh grade this year. Addison Mizner started with sixth grade this year. Money to rebuild and expand both campuses came from the 2016 one-cent, sales-tax surcharge.

The only enrollment declines to note in Boca Raton are at Boca Raton Elementary—down 41 students from 2019—and J.C. Mitchell Elementary—down 160. Both schools serve some of the city’s less-affluent neighborhoods. Overall, most missing students—those unaccounted for—countywide are in such neighborhoods.

Which explains why the numbers are so much different in Delray Beach. The city is much more diverse than Boca Raton and more residents are poorer.

Banyan Creek Elementary has 164 fewer students than in 2019. That’s a decline of about 15 percent. Spady Elementary is down roughly 14 percent and is almost one-third under capacity. Pine Grove Elementary has 389 students on a campus that can hold 852.

Carver Middle in Delray Beach has lost 72 students. Its enrollment of 858 is only about 60 percent of capacity. Atlantic High has nearly 300 fewer students than before the pandemic and is almost 450 students under capacity.

Obviously, smaller enrollments can make life easier in some respects for parents. But smaller enrollment districtwide for whatever reason also means less money from the state. If resources shrink, district administrators could consider closing or consolidating schools.

Boca Raton officials use the city’s schools as a selling point. The Delray Beach City Commission has talked often about the need for better schools. The more immediate priority may be more students.

Barbieri remains chairman

Frank Barbieri

Speaking of schools, condolences to Frank Barbieri.

Barbieri’s colleagues on the Palm Beach County School Board just voted him chairman for the third consecutive year. Why condolences? Barbieri must continue to walk point for himself and six colleagues as they face increasingly shrill partisan political attacks.

Last week, during a meeting between the board and the county’s legislative delegation, State Rep. Rick Roth issued a “kind warning” to the board and Superintendent Mike Burke. Parents, Roth said, are asking questions about Critical Race Theory (CRT) and “gender fluidity.”

Burke told Roth that district schools don’t teach CRT. It’s taught only in law schools. Burke said, “We teach history—all of it.” As for “gender fluidity,” Burke said, “We teach tolerance.”

Roth responded, basically, that he didn’t believe Burke. Roth wanted to “see something in writing.” At least Roth didn’t scream at the board, like so many speakers who opposed the mask mandate.

Barbieri represents Boca Raton and West Boca. Fortunately for him, Barbieri ran for re-election last year. Right-wing groups have threatened to challenge every incumbent in Florida. Those campaigns could resemble what have been raucous school board meetings in Palm Beach County and all across Florida.

Erica Whitfield, who represents part of Delray Beach, already has multiple challengers. So does Marcia Andrews. Debra Robinson, who also represents Delray Beach, has not filed yet. Three other candidates have filed for her seat.

OSS lawsuit assigned

old school square
The Crest Theater at Old School Square, photo by Carl Dawson Photography courtesy of the Delray Beach DDA

Old School Square for the Arts’ lawsuit against Delray Beach has been assigned to Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge John Kastrenakes. He became well known more than a decade ago when, as a federal prosecutor, he secured guilty pleas from three county commissioners on corruption charges.

The lawsuit names Mayor Shelly Petrolia, commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson and City Attorney Lynn Gelin as defendants along with the city. Petrolia, Casale and Johnson voted to end the city’s lease with Old School Square. According to a court filing, their attorney will be from the Weiss Serota firm that has handled lots of other litigation against Delray Beach.

Boca opioid payout

At tonight’s meeting, the Boca Raton City Council will approve a resolution under which City Manager Leif Ahnell will prepare documents to allow the city to receive a portion of damages from the national opioid lawsuit.

Roughly 2,000 local governments agreed in July to a $26 billion settlement with one manufacturer and three distributors of prescription painkillers. All those cases were consolidated under one federal judge in Ohio.

The Florida Attorney General’s Office estimates that Boca Raton, which suffered considerably less than many other cities, could get between $50,000 and $95,000 annually for 18 years for “opioid abatement programs.”

Such an amount wouldn’t pay for many programs. The epidemic also has shifted. When authorities cracked down on the painkillers, addicts turned to even cheaper heroin. Dealers are now lacing heroin with extremely dangerous fentanyl, which is one reason that overdose deaths hit a high of 100,000 between April 2020 and April 2021.

Home rule debate flares up again

Old and new capitol buildings in Tallahassee, Florida. (State Archives of Florida)

Also at tonight’s meeting, the city council will respond to Tallahassee’s latest intrusion onto home rule.

This year, the Legislature passed and Gov. DeSantis signed a bill that requires cities to add a “property rights element” to their comprehensive plans. Essentially, it makes it easier for developers to challenge denials.

It’s not a good bill, but it wasn’t the worst from the regular 2021 session. Another bill, according to the growth management advocacy group 1000 Friends of Florida, will make cities and counties “even more vulnerable to legal challenges over planning decisions.”

The group also said the bill will have “a very chilling effect on local governments that want to better plan to avoid future development in areas at high risk for sea-level rise and flooding.” DeSantis also signed that one.

Holiday break

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I’ll be back Tuesday.

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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