The ABCs of School Crowding in Boca

boca schools

There is enough reality about Boca Raton’s public schools to undercut every assumption on this subject from the city council.

School crowding arose most recently two weeks ago, during the late-November round of meetings. When the council considered a small townhouse project called Yamato Villas just east of Interstate 95, Andrea O’Rourke complained about sending “one more student” to Boca Raton Middle School. No middle school in Palm Beach County is more crowded. The council delayed a decision on Yamato Villas after members raised other concerns.

Then the father of a Boca Raton High School student vented to the council about that packed campus. He insinuated that the council had failed him and other parents by somehow allowing the school to get so crowded.

Each council member then advanced the assumption that best fit his or her view.

To O’Rourke, who campaigned against “overdevelopment” but voted for the Mizner 200 downtown condo project, the city has allowed more growth than the schools can handle. Until the city can “address those issues,” perhaps the council should not approve anything that adds a single student.

To others, notably Scott Singer, more property tax money from Boca Raton for education needs to stay in Boca Raton. Mayor Susan Haynie said the school district reviews every development application and indicates whether the district approves. “(The district) must have plans to increase the capacity of our schools, and they need to share that with us.”

Every council member except O’Rourke is running for something. And O’Rourke seems intent on using the schools issue to push her no-growth agenda, possibly to help Monica Mayotte’s campaign against Robert Weinroth in the March election. “I hear you loud and clear,” she told the father who complained about Boca Raton High.

So schools have become a hot political topic. To go beyond the assumptions and the speeches, let’s look at the reality. Call it Public School For Beginners.

Q: How crowded are the schools in Boca Raton?

A: Pretty crowded, but selectively.

        Boca Raton Middle is the county’s most crowded because 1,555 students are on a campus built for 1,417. Boca Raton High has 3,558 students—the father claimed that the number is 3,900—on a campus built for about 2,900. Spanish River High, though, is just slightly over capacity and the school is adding portable classrooms.

Addison Mizner, Boca Raton and J.C. Mitchell elementary schools are slightly below or at capacity. Calusa Elementary is only slightly over after a boundary change cut the student population. Verde Elementary has 1,055 students on a campus designed to hold 926. Don Estridge and Omni middle schools are roughly at capacity.

Q: Boca Raton has approved a lot of big projects in the last several years, especially downtown. Is that why certain schools are so crowded?

A: In most cases, no.

All those projects have been multi-family— apartments or condos. Though the boundaries for Boca Raton Middle and Boca Raton High include downtown, multi-family complexes generate far fewer students than single-family neighborhoods.

Jason Link is director of boundaries and demographics for the Palm Beach County School District. He cited one complex of 200 units in the Boca Middle/Boca High boundaries with four students and another of 230 units with six students. “That’s pretty much in line” with figures throughout the county. Most apartment/condo dwellers are childless couples and empty nesters. When people want to have kids, they move into a house.

Q: So what has caused the crowding?

A: There are more students.

Though Boca Raton’s median age has increased in the last decade, the number of public school students within the city also has increased—from 9,161 in 2013-14 to 9,681 for this year. That number doesn’t include students who attend private schools.

Why the increase? “A lot of young families are moving in,” Link said. Example: Boca Raton has marketed the city to tech companies whose CEOs are in their 30s. People who work in Broward County and even Miami-Dade like living in Boca Raton for the quality of life—which includes schools.

Of the 10 schools within the city, eight—including both high schools—have ‘A’ ratings from the state. The other two are rated ‘B.’ Boca Raton High was at capacity as recently as six years ago, but the school’s reputation has become so good that parents are choosing it over a private school. Similarly, Calusa Elementary got very crowded in part because of parents moving their children there from private schools.

One other point: The end of the recession reignited the real estate market.

Q: Could the city reject a development because it might add students to a crowded school?

A: No, almost certainly.

The Growth Management Act, which the Florida Legislature passed in 1985, required public services— roads, fire stations—to be in place when cities and counties approved a development. It’s called concurrency. The Legislature, though, eliminated schools from the requirement. Boca Raton would have no legal standing to deny the Yamato Villas application based on schools.

Q: Does the school district have to approve development?

A: No.

The district did send a letter signifying its “approval” of Yamato Villas, but that was bad wording. From now on, the district will make clear that it’s sending only an “impact letter,” estimating how many students a project might generate. But that’s mostly for planning purposes. School districts don’t rule on local development projects.

Q: Why can’t the school district just build more schools to relieve the crowding?

A: It’s not that easy.

Link explained that school district can’t even consider a new school until an existing one gets to be 20 percent over capacity. Boca Raton High is at that level.

Districts need state approval to build a new school. When state officials review such requests, Link said, they first ask whether boundary changes could relieve the problem. At Boca High, they could. But that would mean sending some students outside the city—say, to Olympic Heights—and the council has been vocal about wanting to keep Boca students at Boca schools, even though it’s a countywide school district. Boca Raton High’s boundary also includes portions of Delray Beach.

Q: Would keeping more money from Boca in Boca solve the problem?

A: No. That’s a myth.

As noted, it’s a county school district, with a lot of choice programs. Boca Raton students attend arts magnets Bak Middle and Dreyfoos High in West Palm Beach and Boynton Beach High. They attend International Baccalaureate programs at Atlantic High in Delray Beach and Suncoast High in Riviera Beach. Money from other cities helps to educate students from Boca Raton. Children from all over the county attend Don Estridge High Tech Middle, which chooses students by lottery.

The Legislature also allowed students from one county to attend school in another county. Students from Broward County attend Boca Raton Elementary.

And if the state agrees on the need for a new school, there’s the question of money. The Legislature has cut back so much on construction money—giving some of it to charter schools—that the school district had to persuade voters last year to approve a half-cent sales tax increase just for capital projects. Without that money, Boca Raton wouldn’t be getting new Addison Mizner and Verde elementary schools, both with more capacity.

Q: Didn’t Boca Raton once talk about forming a charter school district?

A: Yes, until reality hit.

Some cities, such as Pembroke Pines in Broward County, have created charter districts. The council, though, would have to act as the school board. Among other things, that would mean negotiating with teachers on raises. It also would mean that the council made all the key decisions and thus couldn’t blame anyone else.

Q: Then what can the city do?

A: First, bring back the education committee.

Boca Raton had such an advisory board, but the council combined it and several others into the new Community Advisory Panel. A revived, independent committee could relay information from the school district and help to advocate for the city. The council would be more informed.

Delray Beach has a very active education board. Many meetings feature a presentation involving the city’s schools. Delray Beach won its third All-America City award this year for programs that help at-risk students. The Florida League of Cities could give Boca Raton many examples of innovative city-school programs.

Q: What else could the city do?

A: Donate land.

There’s talk of the city giving the district land near Estridge Middle for an elementary school. That property is across from the Spanish River Library.

Q: Anything else?

A: Lobby Tallahassee.

The Republicans who dominate the city council could contact the GOP legislators in Tallahassee who have done so much in the last 20 years to undermine public education. They are to blame, not the school district.

Q: Is there one last thing?

A: Yes. Get some perspective.

Boca Raton has very good schools, and the city is getting a large chunk of revenue from the sales tax increase to make the schools even better. Solutions will come sooner if council members don’t posture. School crowding is an important issue, so don’t make it political. That starts with getting the facts right.

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What’s next

Kris Garrison, who as director of planning for the school district is Jason Link’s boss, will give a presentation on schools and crowding to the Boca Raton City Council at Monday’s workshop meeting.

Waterfront update slated

At that Monday workshop meeting, the city council also will hear the update from Boca Raton’s waterfront consultant that was postponed from last month. Expect much discussion about the Wildflower property.

Council review of Midtown

Monday also should mark the start of council review of the proposals for the Midtown neighborhood. The staff is set to present its analysis of the conditions attached by the planning and zoning board when it approved the two ordinances and one rezoning. On Tuesday, the council is scheduled to introduce the ordinances but will take no vote.

Haynie campaign

While Mayor Haynie deals with the controversy over her dealings with James and Marta Batmasian, her campaign for county commission continues.

In October, her first month of fund-raising, Haynie raised about $10,000 and loaned herself $500. She got $2,000 from the Dunay, Miskel and Backman law firm that most recently represented Boca Raton Regional Hospital, Mizner 200 and Boca Helping Hands before the council.

Another $1,000 came from attorney Michael Daszkal, a trustee of the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce. Haynie also received $1,000 from an entity of Florida Crystals. The real estate arm of the West Palm Beach-based sugar company has applied to build housing as part of the Camino Square project.

Anti-postponement proposal

Before the Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board tonight is a helpful proposal that would make it harder to postpone review of a development application. As the resolution notes, delaying an advertised item is inconvenient for those who have come to speak. The change would restrict requests for postponements to illnesses, family deaths and the like.