Florida's classroom mystery: missing students

Many schools could lose millions of dollars in state subsidies as a result.

Around Ernest Hemingway's former home in Key West, the chatter of children on the playground is quieter. In the panhandle's Madison County, school buses are emptier. And here at Clark Elementary in New Tampa, hallways should be packed with tykes – but they're not.

About 120 children who were expected to enroll at Clark in the beginning of the year did not. Last year, the school enrolled 760 pupils, and Principal Brenda Griffin was anticipating a full house again this year. Instead, there are at least two unused classrooms, and the school now operates at 85 percent capacity.

In one of the most puzzling miscalculations in the history of the Florida school system, the Sunshine State's schools didn't grow by 48,853 students as everyone expected. Instead, only 477 backpack-wearing youngsters were added to the schools, the lowest number since 1981.

The numbers, released Friday by the Florida Department of Education, have confirmed the change in Florida's population, which caught school administrators off guard when the new academic year began a few months ago. Many schools now could lose millions in state subsidies.

"This middle-class exodus has been a trend here in the Keys for a couple of years, but this is the first time we've really seen it statewide on this scale," says Randy Acevedo, superintendent for the Monroe County schools in Key West.

Others see the decline of students as an anomaly, albeit a disturbing one. But it caught school administrators by surprise and sent superintendents and school boards scrambling. Experts and demographers are still trying to pinpoint what happened.

"It's a mystery," says Linda Cobbe, a spokeswoman for Hillsborough Schools in Tampa. "We're still scratching our heads."

Some say the answer may be a result of Florida's once hyperactive – and now slumping – housing market. The state, which had been attracting a sun-soaking middle class, has recently become less affordable for them.

That's especially true in Tampa, Fort Myers, Fort Lauderdale, and Miami. US Census estimates since 2000 show that the Big Three Southern Florida counties of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach gained 440,000 people, while losing some 7,000 students.

As developers bank on baby boomers and wealthy foreign investors to buy up much of Florida real estate, some families are moving to less expensive markets in Florida such as St. Lucie County, which was one of the few that saw a small increase in student population.

Other families are moving to Tennessee and North Carolina, where developers are now advertising heavily in the Miami newspapers. Many would-be Floridians cite the state's relatively low median income, its insurance costs that have risen by at least 50 percent, and its high median homes prices in their decision not to move there, experts say.

Indeed, the new school numbers cast doubt on estimates that up to 1,400 people a day are moving to Florida, experts say. Everyone from developers to school superintendents "are banking on this huge population influx that really is now a phantom population," says Jack McCabe of McCabe Research and Consulting in Deerfield Beach, Fla.

County school districts stand to lose $203 million in enrollment-based state funding, which is likely to mean that some teachers who were hired over the summer may be looking for other jobs. School boards are questioning their investments in new schools, as the Hillsborough School Board recently did, says Ms. Cobbe.

Florida's education commissioner said last week that the state will examine its enrollment projection formulas and fix what went wrong.

One possible explanation for the miscalculation, says Mr. McCabe, is that huge chunks of Florida's real estate are being bought by "flippers" who don't live in the state, but are hoping to cash in on recent increases in home valuations.

"Census bureau estimates, while they work fine in a normal housing market, are out of whack when we hit these boom-bust cycles, and they're counting many, many more people than are actually living there," says McCabe.

Meanwhile, Clark Elementary, a nine-year-old school built in the Spanish style, is now busing in students from other schools to fill the rolls. "It's definitely a double-edged sword for us, and we had to scramble at the beginning of the year," Griffin says. "For young families, I think it's become an affordability issue."

In Madison County, however, a 3 percent enrollment slump has made it easier for the district to comply with a new state law, mandating that individual schools, not districts, adhere to a smaller class size.

As a result, "this negative news had a positive spin for us," says Madison County Superintendent Lou Miller.

But in Key West, Mr. Acevedo is troubled. "Most educators didn't get into this business to deal with housing issues, but that's where we find ourselves today," he says.

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