State to school leaders: Where’s the crowd? 3 new schools not needed

State inaction has thrown the brakes on plans to build three new schools intended to relieve widespread crowding from Palm Beach County’s mid-section south.

That doesn’t mean the plans for one high school, one middle school and one elementary school will be scrapped – yet. But Superintendent Donald Fennoy complained at the School Board’s most recent public meeting that with these three schools “stuck” in the Department of Education’s bureaucracy, the planned renovations and expansions at other campuses are also delayed.

What is equally frustrating to district staff and infuriating the elected school board is the reason behind the state’s stall.

To paraphrase talks to date: There are plenty of empty seats in your county, use them.

“Our problem is the seats aren’t in the right location,” said Jason Link, the district’s enrollment and boundaries expert.

And the state’s suggestions, as reported by district staff, that students could be bused as far as West Palm Beach or dozens of boundaries redrawn to fill those seats has drawn considerable fire.

By the district’s own calculations there are thousands of seats to spare particularly at the elementary and middle school level, now and even five years from now, when the additions are supposed to be complete.

By 2023, the district calculates it will have 98,600 elementary seats and only 85,100 students – or about 13,500 extra seats. Middle schools would have 4,500 more seats than students. Only in Palm Beach County’s high schools do the numbers do show a shortage of space five years down the road – not a shock considering more than two-thirds of its 24 high schools are filled beyond 90 percent capacity (13 are at 99 percent and beyond) and the district is growing.

But the seats aren’t next door to the problems.

“I don’t know how they expect us to move children from the south end of the county on buses and get them up to… schools that have classroom space during rush hour traffic in the morning,” fumed board member Frank Barbieri, who represents the southernmost swath of the county where a new elementary is planned.

Karen Brill, the board member whose territory lies directly north and is seeking a middle school, agreed and worried that any proposed visit from state officials during the summer would be misleading.

“They’re not going to see that traffic because they’re all snowbirds and snowflakes. We have a problem,” Brill said.

The district has a number of plans to relieve crowding in some areas by adding space at existing schools – and 30 of those projects have been approved by the state.

But the three new schools stuck in process are key to addressing the most pressing capacity problems, Link said.

‘OOO’ at Lyons Road

The district acquired land for the high school known as OOO, or “Triple O,” more than a decade ago, anticipating the need to relieve the critical massing of students in the county’s midsection. The school would sit off Lyons Road south of Lake Worth Road.

Five of six so-called central county high schools are beyond capacity now and 1,000 more students are expected in the next five years.

Forest Hill High is the most crowded school in the district and will be more so in 2023 with 1,000 more students than seats – 150 percent of its capacity. John I. Leonard, Wellington, Palm Beach Central, Royal Palm Beach and Lake Worth high schools aren’t far behind.

High school crowding is the most critical crowding issue in the district by Links’ estimate. Of the 23 traditional high schools, only four are under 90 percent full and two of those are in the Glades. The other two are Olympic Heights west of Boca Raton and Boynton Beach High — neither situated to provide elbow room to the north.

Elementary at Don Estridge Middle

Crowding at schools south of Clint Moore Road in Boca Raton and its suburbs is epic.

Two years ago, in order to fix crowding at Calusa Elementary, the district shuffled 300 student s at six schools, just to give it breathing room. The principal had carved out needed classrooms from computer labs, administrative offices and kitchen nooks. The art and music teachers didn’t have their own rooms.

By state standards, Calusa still has too many students, clocking in at 135 percent full. The problem was that every elementary school in the region also was full or close to it.

To the north closer to the coast in Delray Beach, a couple of schools – Orchard View and Pine Grove — had some space. But proposals to redirect some students in Boca neighborhoods to schools with lower test scores, in less affluent — and what a couple of parents decried as more crime-ridden neighborhoods — was met with fierce opposition.

The closest elementaries with the most space include Pine Grove in Delray Beach north of Linton Boulevard, Forest Park north of Woolbright in Boynton Beach and Palmetto Elementary in West Palm Beach.

Though state officials couldn’t be reached for comment, district staff reported that state officials have suggested busing may be an answer and that a bus trip from Boca Raton to Palmetto could be done in 30 minutes — a speed Barbieri, an experienced commuter, had difficulty fathoming.

“It’s going to take hours. It’s very frustrating,” Barbieri said.

Alternatively, draining the southern schools by filling ones to the north in a cascade of boundary changes is tricky.

Just relieving one school, Calusa, required moves to or from five others. Relieving all 12 schools south of Clint Moore Road would entail moving thousands of students in boundary changes that would domino through at least three cities and their unincorporated neighbors to the west.

“It would be extremely difficult and likely unpopular,” Link said.

Boca Raton’s city leaders have been so eager to add an elementary, they’ve offered to give the district land neighboring Don Estridge Middle School on which to build it.

The state’s inaction there puts in jeopardy the timeline to level and rebuild Addison Mizner with more room. The proposed elementary was to be built first and then house Addison students while their school was razed.

Middle school at Sunset Palms

For years, residents living west of Boynton Beach’s city limits have clamored for their own middle school. They even knew where to put it: on 17 acres donated by developer GL Homes next to Sunset Palms Elementary.

They complained that the commute to Odyssey Middle, where their children were zoned, was too long. The school also didn’t have the educational perks they wanted including a full-time gifted program. But the district couldn’t build a new school when it already had middle schools in the region sitting half empty.

Instead, a charter school opened nearby and siphoned more families from Odyssey. This year, the board voted to close Odyssey and move South Tech Education Center onto the campus. It then redrew the region’s boundaries filling up seats in nearby middle schools, particularly Congress Middle in Boynton Beach.

Because of planned growth in the region, the district estimates it would be able to fill a middle school at Sunset Palms – and a new school is also likely to reclaim students whose families otherwise would opt for the charter school, Link said.

The school board doesn’t need the state approval to build a school, if it can pay for it out of pocket, said Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke.

The district estimates the three to total $166.5 million, about $7.9 million of which is already being spent on architects and contractors. The money is expected to come from the budget that was freed up with money from the one-cent sales tax. The sales tax money is paying to fix roofs, replace air conditioners and make other needed repairs.

But the district doesn’t have all that cash in hand and intends to borrow money against future income to pay for the new schools, Burke said. That means it needs the state’s OK.

“This is a new found problem for us,” Burke said.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, enrollment was growing so fast it drove undeniable need for more schools. When the economy tanked in 2008, enrollment began to fall – no new schools needed then. Only now is enrollment on a steady upswing.

The district has invited state officials to get a lay of the land in person – though they wish it could be done when school is in and when the season peaks to better calculate travel times between schools.

In the meantime, Chief Operating Officer Wanda Paul has this lament: “Charters can just go and build where they want to build and it’s a different standard. Don’t think they’re not looking at that. I think it’s an unfair standard.”

Data reporter Mahima Singh contributed to this report.

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