In the first full school year since Hurricane Michael public school enrollment has held relatively unscathed, if not realizing some of the growth for which district officials hoped for prior to the storm.
The district just completed the second of two enrollment counts mandated by the state, with enrollment just below projections.
“We are holding steady which is a positive,” said Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton, adding that the largest qualifier is the continued lack of affordable housing in the county.
“Until I see some housing coming in we won’t rest easy,” he said.
Total district enrollment in February was 1,898, but that included Pre-K students who are not funded under the Florida Education Finance Plan (FEFP).
The FEFP is among the last documents to emerge during the annual Florida legislative sessions; the 2020 session is underway.
Backing out the Pre-K students, 25 in Port St. Joe and 30 in Wewahitchka, the number is 1,843, which is just 21 full-time equivalent students below district and state projections of 1,864 for the current school year.
For the 2020-2021 school year, the district is projecting attendance to drop slightly to 1,856.
While well short of the 2,200 or so students 20 years ago, it remains about 100 students above the nadir of several years ago.
The breakdown by school:
*Port St. Joe Elementary School – 573;
*Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School – 463;
*Wewahitchka Elementary School – 512;
*Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School – 350;
As reflected in those numbers, the Wewahitchka schools have seen recent growth, due to a number of factors, including relocations from the storm and the growth of Deseret Cattle and Timber in the north end of the county.
And another positive is reflected in elementary school enrollment district-wide.
For example, there are 154 students combined in kindergarten and 171 combined at the sixth-grade level in the elementary schools.
Compared those numbers to the high schools counting freshman through senior years there is no single class as large.
The decline has mostly been at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School, an organic development since Hurricane Michael ravaged the south end of the county.
Full-time equivalent student counts in significant measure drive each district’s budget, accounting for about $4,000 per student based on current state per-pupil funding.
The emphasis is on current because as with every year the district, as with many small rural districts, is crossing fingers when it comes to what will come out of the Florida Legislature.
Instead of putting aside money for the governor’s signature pledge of increasing teacher pay, which will come with a price tag of over $400,000 in Gulf County alone during the coming fiscal year, the money is being diverted from other services, Norton said.
Under proposals still in play during this session is one that would require districts to increase contributions to the Florida Retirement System and a measure to earmark hundreds of thousands of dollars to bolster technology in the classrooms.
“We have less money to operate one and more unfunded mandates,” said district financial officer Sissy Worley. “But it is still not over. We will wait and see.”
Norton said that while the district “has been bailed to date” by state grants and funding as well as Triumph dollars, “it is not recurring (funding).”
“We want the money for our teachers, but will it keep coming,” said School Board member Ruby Knox.
Until the legislative session is over, Norton said, everything is a guess.