Wednesday, July 6, 2022

School Boundaries, Campaign Updates and More

There could be fewer students at Boca Raton High School this year than the Palm Beach County School District had projected.

You read that right. Official numbers won’t be in until mid-October, but at this point the effort to identify students who had been attending Boca High illegally is paying off. Just catching boundary jumpers won’t end overcrowding, but it’s part of the solution.

Jason Link runs the Boundaries and Demographics section of the school district’s planning department. Though he doesn’t live in Boca Raton, Link is familiar with the city’s education issues. He helped to craft the complicated plan that eased overcrowding at Calusa Elementary School. One part was a similar review of where students actually lived. But Link said a review of the scope underway at Boca High, which had 3,564 students last year, is “unprecedented.”

With John I. Leonard High School, near Lake Worth, Boca Raton High has been one of the two most overcrowded high schools. Crowding became a political issue last year in Boca Raton and remains one in the Aug. 28 special election.

If plans stay on schedule, money from the 2016 sales-tax surcharge soon will finance expansions of Spanish River and Olympic Heights High Schools. They will be able to accommodate students in western areas who now attend Boca High. Combined with boundary changes, the school will be near its capacity of roughly 3,000.

Moving out students who should be going elsewhere, however, could bring some relief more quickly. Some students also have come legally from outside the boundary because of choice programs. Boca High has pared those.

“Our goal,” Link said, “is to reduce the number of out-of-boundary assignments to a minimum.”

Doing so has required changes in procedure and detective work. Link said Boca High required all students to re-register for this year and provide new proof of address.

“Some didn’t show,” Link said. “Some didn’t respond.”

Obviously, those were telltale signs. The district also worked with Boca Raton Middle—the district’s most overcrowded in that category and Boca High’s main feeder school—to identify “suspicious” eighth-graders.

Link and his staff compared the submitted addresses to those in their verification database. They flagged about 350 addresses and checked each individually, starting with the rising sophomores. Ultimately, the district sent 75 names to Boca High Principal Susie King, whom Link said will make the final determination.

Principals must follow procedure, which means first contacting a parent.

“We are aware,” Link said, “that some students are dealing with divorce and even homelessness.”

Under a settlement the district struck with the Department of Justice, the district or a principal can’t act unilaterally. After deciding that a student is out of boundary, officials must tell the student’s family which is the proper school.

Still, red-flagged students must present two proofs of address within the Boca High boundary. Parents who are seeking an exception must present a notarized statement— risking a perjury charge if they lie—that their situation is a “true hardship.”

When we spoke last week, Link said overall enrollment at Boca High was about 200 under projections. Ninth-grade enrollment alone was 100 students under projections. Link said, “Word is getting out.”

This stringent review, Link said, “never may be done.” Backing off could mean that the problem returns, given Boca High’s reputation. The district maintains a tips line, and administrators look for signs such as excessive tardiness that could reveal a long trip to school.

As noted, only additional capacity at surrounding high schools will bring lasting relief. Boca Raton wants to keep attracting young families. But there clearly is progress. I will update this post when the student count is done.

Link added that the Boca High attendance boundary review has been successful enough that the district might do the same thing for Boca Middle. Perhaps the city council and the education task force could encourage that.

Such a plan would mean checking fifth-graders coming from Addison Mizner, Boca Raton and J.C. Mitchell elementaries that feed Boca Middle. The scrutiny could shift further to elementary schools when Addison Mizner and Verde add middle-school grades.

New Boca school plans

half daysThere has been a change to the plans for those 15 acres for a new elementary school in Boca Raton.

Originally, the school district wanted to house students from Addison Mizner Elementary in portables on that property next to Don Estridge Middle School, which the city donated, during construction of the new Addison Mizner. Instead, Verde Elementary students will use the portables first while their new school is being built.

In the post-Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting world, administrators and parents began to worry about having 1,300 students so close to the construction site west of Town Center Mall. Palm Beach County School Board member Frank Barbieri said, “There was no way to guarantee security or establish a secure perimeter.”

Despite the change, Barbieri told me Wednesday that district administrators expect the new Addison Mizner to be ready for the 2021-22 school year.

New law puts officers in schools

Boca Raton police officers patrol the city’s elementary schools while the school district police department recruits more of its officers. In Delray Beach, city officers patrol elementary schools and Atlantic High School. The cities pay the officers overtime and receive reimbursement from the district.

A new state law requires a sworn officer or armed staff member. The Palm Beach County School Board voted not to arm faculty members.

Campaign watch

Acting Mayor Scott Singer

Through Aug. 10, Mayor Scott Singer had raised nearly $150,000 for his campaign against BocaWatch Publisher Al Zucaro in the Aug. 28 special election. That’s more than Susan Haynie raised in her campaign just 18 months ago, also against Zucaro.

For the two weeks covering late July and early August, Singer received another $14,500. A $1,000 contribution came from Jack Fox, a former board member of the Boca Raton Airport Authority. Zucaro filed an ethics complaint against Fox that was dismissed. Fox later criticized Zucaro during a city council meeting.

Zucaro raised $8,100 during the reporting period, bringing his total to $42,500. The new donations include a $3,000 loan from Zucaro and a $1,000 personal check. Zucaro thus has given his campaign $7,500.

One notable contribution is $2,000 from Uriel Rubinov, whose businesses include one called GolfGate in Boca Raton, and a Rubinov entity. Rubinov, who was born in Russia but is a naturalized citizen, was registered until January as a foreign agent for the government of Kazakhstan and maintains an office in a New York City building that President Donald Trump owns.

In an email, Zucaro said the two met when Rubinov learned that Zucaro had the World Trade Center license for this area. Rubinov “is interested in the World Trade Center Association and sought my advice.” Zucaro founded World Trade Center Palm Beach but has been unable to convert the license into any trade deals.

And more

Among candidates for City Council Seat A in Boca Raton’s special election, Andy Thomson continues to lead in fundraising. Thomson received $10,800 during the latest reporting period. He has $83,000.

Thomson got $1,500 from the Dunay, Miskel and Backman law firm that represents many clients seeking development applications. Thomson also received $1,000 from the union that represents Boca Raton’s general—non-public safety—employees and $500 from Luke Sherlock, whose niece was among the Stoneman Douglas victims. Sherlock also donated $500 to Singer.

Seat A candidate Kathy Cottrell raised $1,700, for a total of $46,000. Cottrell is mostly self-financed, having loaned her campaign $25,000. Tamara McKee raised $63.42 and stands at $54,000. McKee is almost completely self-financed, having loaned her campaign $43,000.

Downtown development ordinance update

Despite complaints from some of them about “overdevelopment,” Boca Raton City Council members generally agreed Monday with proposed changes to the ordinance that governs downtown development.

In general, the changes would shift responsibility for small projects and minor changes to the staff, rather than have them go before the council. The hope is to save time and thus money for non-controversial applications.

Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke, who ran against “overdevelopment,” called them “impressive ideas” that would be “positive.” Councilman Jeremy Rodgers said, “I like them a lot.” O’Rourke noted the case of a man who wanted to open a small ice cream shop and finally gave up because the approval process took so long. The changes would have to come back to the council, acting as the community redevelopment agency, for a vote.

Delray sober house

The operator of a Delray Beach sober house called Stepping Stones asked for a delay in city commission review of his application. The city commission was to have considered the application during Tuesday night’s meeting.

Scott Tompkins gave no reason for his request. City Attorney Max Lohman said Tompkins might be waiting to obtain certification from the Florida Association of Recovery Residences. The city required certification before approval of the application.

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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