Listen to charter school advocates in Palm Beach County and they will tell you that this year’s small, but growing exodus of students from some district-run schools to charters isn’t all bad. After all, they say, it helped ease crowding at some schools.
But opponents argue that “help” is selective. While the student population dropped at most district-run traditional schools, figures show that dozens — like John I. Leonard High School in Greenacres — still face chronic space problems and the possibility of boundary changes in the future.
What’s more, some parents fear that other district-run schools — like Odyssey Middle School in western Boynton Beach — face potential problems paying for basic arts programs, brought on by too few students.
Still, with more than a dozen new charter schools approved to open in Palm Beach County in the near future, and dozens more schools applying, charter school officials and parents say it’s time to start looking at charters as part of the solution to school crowding and angst brought on by boundary changes.
“Ultimately what I’d like to see is that kids are not forced to change schools,” said Ron Reis, a member of the district’s volunteer Advisory Boundary Committee that oversees school boundary changes to ease crowding. “I think charter schools will help.”
The latest numbers would appear to bear Reis out.
According to the district’s “11th day count” conducted last Tuesday, enrollment at district-run traditional and alternative schools dropped by 1,038 students. By contrast, enrollment at charter schools jumped by more than 4,100 students, marking this the first year district-run rolls fell while charters grew.
West Boynton school leads the pack
The trend, forecast to continue at least through the 2018 school year, was ushered in in a big way by Franklin Academy. The west Boynton school opened this year as the largest charter in the county, with 1,137 students in just kindergarten through seventh grade. A Franklin spokesman said the school had enough applications to open well above its 1,300-student capacity.
Parents are choosing charters, in part, because they are unhappy with those boundary changes which force their children to switch schools, some officials say.
West Boynton parents like Dina Wrathell followed through on their threats to switch to charter schools after a controversial boundary change forced nearly 100 kids from neighborhoods like Isola Bella Estates to switch from Sunset Palms to Coral Reef elementaries. Wrathell said she sent her older daughter, Alyssa, to Somerset Academy Canyons charter middle school because she was afraid she would face the same fate as her younger daughter, Gianna, who was moved away from her friends at Sunset to Coral Reef.
District officials, last year, argued that boundary changes are needed as a more efficient use of taxpayer dollars to move children to already-built space in under-used schools than to spend more money for new space at crowded schools.
But Tom Rogers, a board representative for Florida Charter Foundation, which runs Franklin, argued that charter schools are almost entirely financed based on their actual enrollment each year and typically lease space instead of owning their building. As a result, he said, charters can more easily move to an area in the county if the population shifts.
“You’re not paying for a building in the wrong place,” Rogers said. “Charters create that flexibility.”
Overcrowding still happening
Not enough, according to district officials. There are still 30 schools on the district’s “capacity watch list” for potential crowding problems in the future — including 25 schools above 100 percent of their campus capacity. Some of those, like Heritage Elementary School in Greenacres and Western Pines Middle School in The Acreage, barely made a dent in their crowding after losing dozens of students this year.
Last week’s district count showed that the biggest losses were seen at middle schools like west Boynton’s Odyssey and Osceola Creek in The Acreage, which were already struggling to attract students. Both schools are now using less than 60 percent of their capacity.
Reis said that is the potential danger he fears in the growing exodus to charter schools: it could leave some schools so empty that they don’t have enough money or demand to offer electives such as art, or extra-curricular activities like band.
“While being too crowded can hurt your music program, being underutilized can do that too,” Reis said. “Ultimately, it is going to reduce the amount of services that can be offered.”
District-wide, Chief Operating Officer Mike Burke estimated that the current 1,038-student drop at district-run schools would translate to about $7 million less in per-student funding from the state this year. The 4,100 new charter school students represents about $28 million going to charters instead of the district.
Reis said the advisory boundary committee will meet on Thursday to review the results of the 11th day count, including the growing charter trend.
The panel also will discuss recommendations for which schools the district needs to study for possible boundary changes in 2014. Of the 30 schools on the “capacity watch list,” a district report identified eight crowded schools for a possible boundary change.
But Reis said he hopes that the decline in district enrollment will enough to set aside talk of any boundary changes next year.