School crowding so pressing, Boca considers giving up parkland

1:51 p.m Monday, Dec. 18, 2017 Local
Students at Don Estridge High Tech Middle School participate in a simulation in 2016. Boca Raton is considering donating or selling 14 acres of land near the school to expand, to help offset crowding at most local schools. (Palm Beach Post file photo)

Boca Raton’s leaders are so concerned about the city’s crowded schools they are now considering donating, swapping or selling parkland if that will prime the school district to build new or bigger schools.

The Palm Beach County School District has been grappling with the crowded conditions and has plans to deliver some relief in years to come, but it’s not clear whether more land from the city will result in those plans getting any bigger or make them materialize any faster.

Of the nine schools in Boca Raton, only two — Addison Mizner and J.C. Mitchell Elementary — are under capacity.

Hundreds of students were shuffled this fall to give Calusa Elementary more breathing room, but even then the school remains packed with 258 more students than it was built to hold — a crowding that is only somewhat relieved by a number of portables on the campus. Boca Raton High enrolls 636 more students than it was built for.

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The district’s plans to renovate, expand and build in southern Palm Beach County are reliant on sales tax money approved by voters last year — money that has already been tied to certain projects.

Boca Raton leaders have offered ideas to relieve crowded conditions.

Last week, a Boca Raton councilman suggested Don Estridge High Tech Middle School, on Spanish River Boulevard and Military Trail, could take on about 14 acres of city-owned greenery surrounding the school and transform into a kindergarten through eighth grade.

The city’s parks district is considering a land-swap deal with the school district that would allow Addison Mizner Elementary School to be rebuilt at one of the city’s most-frequented parks, Sugar Sand. The school already is scheduled for renovation.

“These are just spots on a map,” Boca Raton Councilman Scott Singer said. “It’s not an offer today to give up land … I think we need to have that conversation.”

A chunk of the Palm Beach County school district’s money from last year’s one-cent sales tax increase will go toward rebuilding Addison Mizner and Verde elementary schools.

There’s been some discussion about turning those schools into centers for kindergarten through eighth grade within the next five years.

The school district also set aside money in its capital plan to build another elementary school in southwestern Palm Beach County. But it hasn’t bought land, or decided where that school would be, said Kris Garrison, the district’s planning director.

If the money is there, Don Estridge could expand, Singer said.

Meanwhile, the topic of rebuilding Addison Mizner Elementary on an unused portion of Sugar Sand Park has divided residents.

The district has two options for Addison Mizner, said school board member Frank Barbieri, whose district includes Boca Raton:

Addison Mizner parents and neighbors are torn over the relocation, which has brought the conversation to a near halt the past few months.

Boca council members invited school district leaders to a workshop last week to discuss crowding at schools, a frequent complaint of Boca Raton parents.

What started as an informative chat about district plans turned into a plea for more attention and investment in Boca schools.

“I know I sound frustrated,” Vice Mayor Jeremy Rodgers told school district officials. “A lot of our residents are frustrated. Any relief you can provide…”

Boca Raton seems to be a victim of its own success, Rodgers said. At a time when across the district parents opt to send their children to charter or private schools outside their neighborhoods, Boca Raton students tend to stay in their assigned schools at rates higher than common in the county.

Boca’s schools are among the county’s highest rated, the school district reports.

“What we’re seeing in Boca Raton is just younger families coming to replace these empty nesters,” said Jason Link, director of enrollment and demographics for the district.

The city’s popularity among young families has translated into an influx of students, Link said.

The community’s jam-packed schools has prompted some city leaders to question whether it should allow new homes to be built if the schools can’t handle more students.

“We have to address that problem before we build more,” Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke said.

The council said it would take inventory of its land and work with the school district on solutions.