BY JENNIFER CABRERA
Bottom line: The number of students in traditional district schools dropped in 2020-21 and has only slightly recovered, while the number of families choosing state scholarships or homeschooling has increased significantly. This is leading to a projected budget deficit of $5.6 million for Alachua County Public Schools for the 2022-23 school year.
A budget presentation to the Alachua County School Board on May 11 showed that the number of students in the district is growing quickly, but the increases are in scholarship programs (tuition paid to private schools by the state), while the number of students in district schools has only recovered slightly from the drop seen in 2020-21. The FTEs in the chart above are students, and while the number of students in charter schools has remained nearly constant since the 2013-14 school year, the number of students in district schools grew through 2019-20, dropped by about 1,000 in 2020-21, and is only projected to recover a fraction of that drop through the 2022-23 school year. Meanwhile, the number of students in scholarship programs has exploded from a few hundred in 2019-20 to about 2,000 projected for 2022-23.
It’s important to note that the projection is based on scholarship applications that were approved in the past year; it is unknown how many of these families will find seats in private schools or will decide to return to their district schools. However, there were about 1,300 students in these scholarship programs this year.
Alachua County Public Schools Finance Chief Alex Rella told the school board that the FTE is “the single most important part of the budget” because it drives both the per-student revenue and costs that include bus drivers and teachers. For the 2021-22 school year, the number of students enrolled in the district’s traditional schools was 665 below projections, and the number of students in scholarship programs was 824 above projections.
The number of scholarship and homeschool students has increased quite a bit since the 2019-20 school year:
Rella told the board that “the Empowerment Scholarship’s the single biggest threat to education, in my opinion, in terms of the financial aspect. Parents have a lot of choices, and you know, I think we’re going to have to change our mindset in a lot of ways if we’re going to be competitive.” Rella said they’d thought that 70-80% of students who had switched to homeschooling during COVID would return to district schools, but that hasn’t happened.
Rella said that due to legislative changes this year, the district will not receive any funding under the School Recognition Program, regardless of the district’s grade, because the legislature specified that the money could not go to districts that had a face covering mandate.
Rella said that the current budget projections show an increase in funding of about $18 million, but $14.6 million of that will be deducted if the scholarship program projections are accurate, leading to an increase of only $4.7 million. The district’s required additional expenses for the next fiscal year come to $11.3 million.
That leads to an estimated budget deficit of $5.6 million. Rella added, “We do not operate very efficiently, in my opinion, so there’s definitely opportunities for the board to reduce costs by being more efficient.”
Board Member Tina Certain asked for specifics on efficiency, but Rella said it would be best if his staff brought back some potential items after discussing it with Superintendent Shane Andrew. Certain also asked Rella to bring back suggestions on how the ESSER and ARP funds could legally be used to reduce the deficit.
In closing that segment of the meeting, Board Chair Robert Hyatt said, “We have to win the competition. We have to be the choice that parents want… We have to continue to improve what we offer… We need to make sure that we promote… what we’re doing.”