School closings likely

Pinellas superintendent Clayton Wilcox says dipping enrollment will leave no choice.

Published June 3, 2007

The Pinellas public school system is facing what could be the steepest enrollment decline in its 95-year history, a development that will prompt superintendent Clayton Wilcox to recommend closing at least a handful of schools.

"The problem for me is not so much the decline," Wilcox said. "It's the loss of state revenue associated with those kids, and the fact that we've not made any adjustments to the number of schools to serve those kids. ... We absolutely have to look at some school closures."

The drop contrasts with the region's other school systems. Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties all are projected to see modest enrollment gains in coming years.

For generations, Pinellas has grown with the rest of Florida, taking in scores of new students, building schools and hiring more teachers.

The high-water mark came as recently as the 2003-04 academic year, when 112,520 students filled Pinellas schools. But after three years of declines -- plus a big dip expected when schools reopen Aug. 21 -- enrollment will have dropped by nearly 6,000 students.

The state projects Pinellas will be a district of only 102,801 students by the 2010 school year. That's a drop of nearly 10,000 students, enough to fill five high schools or about 15 elementaries.

Not that the district would close that many buildings. At least initially, Wilcox is talking about shutting down four to six schools starting with the 2008-09 academic year.

The candidates include small schools, schools with older buildings and those with unfilled seats.

Wilcox and his staff will assemble a list of prospective closings over the next three weeks as they begin a major, summerlong effort to redesign the system and replace the choice plan.

The prospect of closings is sure to intensify a process already filled with political peril. The district will be asking hundreds of families to sever school ties that can run deep.

Wilcox acknowledged the difficulty but said there is no way to run the district efficiently without downsizing.

The only enrollment decline approaching this scale occurred from 1927 to 1930, when job losses during the Depression sent people back north in droves, according to the district's history books. Pinellas lost more than 7, 300 students during that period.

Why the drop this time?

Families are leaving the county or avoiding it, scared off by high home prices and rising insurance rates, officials say. In addition, they say, Pinellas' geography leaves precious little space for growth.

"It's really tough for a growing family," said Mike Meidel, director of Pinellas County Economic Development, an agency that works to attract and retain businesses.

"What (housing) is available, especially new construction, is unaffordable for families getting started," he said. "Anybody looking to enter our marketplace has got serious sticker shock."

More and more, he said, new arrivals to Pinellas tend to be people in their 20s who don't have children, or those in their 50s whose children have moved out of the house.

"I think we lost a lot more families than anybody really realizes," said Wilcox, citing the conversion of mobile home parks to more expensive housing. The trend, he said, has driven out families who work in the service industry.

"Every time I look up, I see those cranes in the sky and I see condos going up," Wilcox said. "I don't see people building a lot of single-family developments."

Pinellas not unique

Other districts are in similar situations.

While a majority of Florida school districts gained in enrollment this year, 32 counties reported decreases. Pinellas was among seven larger districts with significant declines.

Miami-Dade lost 8,300 kids this year on top of 4,100 last year. Broward was down by 7,200 after losing nearly 2,000 last year. Palm Beach County declined by 3,100 students.

Those losses fueled an overall decline of about 3,600 students across Florida, which this year lost enrollment for the first time since 1982.

Somewhat stumped, state demographers studied whether more students were flocking to private schools, being home schooled or entering voucher programs.

"We looked at all the usual culprits, and it wasn't any of those," said Amy Baker, coordinator of the Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

In Pinellas, for example, private school enrollment has been up and down in recent years, but generally hovering around 15 percent of the school-age population. Population is still growing, if only slightly, and the number of births is down a bit, but roughly the same as when Pinellas' enrollment was growing.

After ruling out other factors, the state began looking at the economy, Baker said.

The tentative conclusion: "It could be that this is a phenomenon that's unique to young, starting families," she said. "We know it's there, but the reasons for it we're still ciphering together."

The reasons seem fairly clear to School Board member Jane Gallucci, former president of the National School Boards Association.

"People are telling us, 'We only have X amount of dollars and we're at the breaking point,'" she said. "People are looking elsewhere. The sunshine isn't the big draw that it used to be."

The staff at Pinellas County Economic Development provided some anecdotal evidence -- a state-by-state report by United Van Lines showing inbound and outbound moves in 2006.

Fifty-one percent of United's Florida moves were outbound, the report said. The state with the largest percentage of inbound moves: North Carolina.

High housing costs

Florida's overall enrollment is projected to start growing again next school year -- unlike Pinellas, where cost pressures have been building in recent years.

In 2001, the cost of housing in the county was well within what an average "executive family" earning $75,000 a year could afford, according to an index produced by the Council for Community and Economic Research. The index showed that housing was more affordable in Pinellas than in Tampa that year.

By late 2006, however, Pinellas housing costs showed up on the index as 6 percent higher than Tampa's. They also had risen beyond what an average "executive family" was paying five years earlier.

Meidel, the economic development director, said the loss of enrollment has impacts outside the school system.

"When we're trying to attract companies into our area, we have to show that they can get workers," he said. That effort can be compromised when local schools -- the primary source of those workers -- are shrinking, he said.

The impact is more direct on the district, which receives most of its state revenue based on enrollment. This year's enrollment losses translated to a drop in revenue of about $4-million.

Meanwhile, the district has had to deal with the same increases in health care costs, property insurance premiums and fuel prices that are weighing down family budgets.

Add to that the class size amendment, which has forced the district to hire more teachers. Since 2004, when enrollment started to dip, Pinellas has increased its teaching force by 502.

The annual spike in payroll, benefits and pensions comes to roughly $32-million.

No area of the district is off limits as officials consider which schools to close. But some of the candidates could be in the St. Petersburg area, where many schools have "excess capacity," Wilcox said. Schools in that area also are closer together, making it easier to close them and still serve students.

It's the same area where the district spent more than $145-million earlier this decade to build three new schools and replace four others.

The expansion was part of a settlement to end the district's long-running desegregation lawsuit. At the time, enrollment was still rising.

"It's easy for me to sit here and Monday-morning-quarterback it, but that, I think, is a perfect example of where political expediency got in the way of the good management of schools," Wilcox said.

The mandate then was to end the lawsuit, "but we're paying for the sins of our fathers right now, " he said. "Because clearly I can't operate this district with the kind overhead that we have today."

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8923.

Enrollment dive
High point for Pinellas County Schools enrollment, 2003-04
109,087 Pinellas student enrollment in 2006-07
102,801 Projected Pinellas school enrollment, 2010-11