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High housing cost mixed with hurricane scare creates alarming drops in students’ enrollment in South Florida

CSMS Magazine Staff WritersCSMS Staff WritersWhile students have swamped School districts across North Florida, coming from across the country fleeing rising housing prices, in South Florida, school officials are witnessing a reverse trend. For the first time in 35 years, Palm Beach County public schools started class with fewer students than the previous year.Enrollment for kindergarten through 12th grade students shows a decline of 3,246 students from last year. That’s a stark change from previous years, when the district received 4,000 to 5,000 new students each year. District officials say it’s the first enrollment drop since 1971. “It totally flies in the face of what we’ve been seeing in recent years,” Superintendent Art Johnson said.District officials anticipated a small decline this year, with hurricanes and high housing costs driving residents out of the county. But actual enrollment, which is taken on the 11th day of school, was about 2,200 students below even those projections. As a result, district officials expect to make about $12 million in cuts, including about 100 teaching positions. The district has more than 100 vacancies, so layoffs are not expected, Johnson said. Typically, the district is still hiring teachers at this time of year. “This means we will come the closest to being fully staffed this year,” Johnson said. “It’s an unusual way to accomplish that.”Schools gain or lose teachers based on enrollment figures from the 11th-day count. Teachers at schools with declining enrollments will be moved to schools that have more students than expected. Typically, teachers with the least seniority must change schools.The largest decline was among elementary schools, which reported about 1,700 fewer students than last year. Middle school enrollment declined by about 1,200 and high school fell by just more than 400.District officials got the first warning a year ago that students may be leaving. They had predicted a larger-than-average increase of 5,603 students for fall 2005 but were surprised when the growth was a mere 477 students. And many started to withdraw as the school year went on, especially after Hurricane Wilma left hundreds of students homeless.Officials say housing costs may be the biggest factor in the decline. More than 12,000 rental units have been converted to condominium units, often at prices that are unaffordable to families with school-age children, demographer Art Wittman said. The average cost of a single-family home has hovered near $400,000 during the past year. “I’ve had parents tell me they could not afford to live in their own home,” said Carol Blacharski, principal at Loggers Run Middle, west of Boca Raton. “If I did not already own a home, I could not afford to be here.”Blacharski said her campus was “just devastated” by an enrollment drop of 129 students. There are 1,021 students at a school that in recent years topped 2,400 and had more than 60 portable classrooms. Two social studies and one math teacher have to find jobs elsewhere in the school district. Blacharski said that because she anticipated an enrollment decline, she never filled a fourth teaching position. “It’s a real sad thing for us,” she said. “From the first day of school I knew we were in trouble.”Cholee Lake Elementary in Greenacres reported the most dramatic decline among elementary schools. The school, which had been growing for several years, fell from 1,415 students to 1,120. Principal Helen Gleicher said she expects to lose seven to nine teachers. “It’s very tough,” she said. “Children have bonded with the teachers already. The teachers are just getting a feel for what they have to do to get the children to really flourish.” Lake Worth High had the biggest decline in the district, 413 students. That’s twice as many students as the district projected. The school probably will lose eight teachers, Principal Ian Saltzman said.A few schools bucked this year’s trend, including Park Vista High, west of Boynton Beach. The school grew by 254 students and is now the largest school in the district, with 3,157 students. County business leaders are watching the school enrollment figures and worry that many people have been priced out of the area, said Budd Kneip, chairman-elect of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County and leader of the 2004 sales-tax campaign for school construction funds. “It is very difficult to live in Palm Beach County,” Kneip said. “Is this a one-time hitch or a trend?” he said. “It’s something to keep an eye on.”Note: Information from Sun-Sentinel newspaper contributed to this report.Also see FCAT: http://www.csmsmagazine.org/news.php?pg=20060525I101

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