Student numbers down, but . . .

Fewer students might mitigate class-size and teacher-shortage issues, the top educator says.

Published November 18, 2006

TAMPA - Florida's declining student enrollment has a silver lining, Education Commissioner John Winn said Friday.

The state's teacher shortage could become less acute, and reducing class sizes may be less costly. "We do see a trend on slower growth than we've had in the past," said Winn, who noted this is the third consecutive year fewer students showed up statewide than were expected.

Hoping to do better next year, Winn wants to incorporate economic indicators like home sales, bankruptcies and business openings and closings into the computer models used to project student enrollment.

This year, statewide enrollment increased by fewer than 500 students, about 48,000 fewer than expected. Winn thinks it is the smallest enrollment increase in 25 years.

School districts have speculated that higher property and insurance costs are hurting enrollment.

In Hillsborough, a rash of apartment complexes converting to condominiums led to declines in some neighborhoods, Winn said.

He stressed that state officials have no way of knowing about such micro changes and depend on individual districts to track local trends.

Statewide, Winn said, migration patterns are changing. Fewer students entered Florida in 2005-06 than in the previous year, excluding one-time events like Hurricane Katrina evacuees. At the same time, more students left the state. "That's a pretty big shift," Winn said.

When enrollment projections miss their mark, school districts take the hit in their pocketbooks. Their budgets are based on anticipated enrollment.

This year's decline in growth will cost school districts about $200-million statewide - money that will remain in state coffers, Winn said.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 813 226-3400.