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Sarasota public schools forecast: Student numbers will shrink next year

Written by on Saturday, February 24, 2024

Main factor, for now, is families leaving the county — not private-school vouchers.

By Johannes Werner

Original Air Date: Feb. 21, 2024

Host: A school board work session on Tuesday saw the first substantial discussion of declining student enrollment in Sarasota County public schools. In light of the state push for privatization via voucher programs, data in late 2023 showing a steep decline set off alarm bells. Our news team has the details.

Johannes Werner: Late last year, the Sarasota School district announced declining student enrollment, for the first time in years. No further information has been released since, and no discussion has been had on the school board.

Bonnie Penner

Yesterday, during a school board work session, Chief Financial Officer Bonnie Penner gave a presentation about the budget. In it, she pointed out that – as it stands – there was no student enrollment decline in 2023. When the entire year is taken, there was actual growth, although the expected growth in student numbers was halved.

Instead of roughly 55,000 students, Sarasota schools saw an actual enrollment of 53,000. And – while it’s much less growth the predicted – that’s still up from 51,000 in the 2022-23 school year.

However, Penner did forecast a small but actual decline for district schools in the 2024-25 school year, if current trends continue. The main contributor to this decline is families leaving the county and Florida, she said.

Bonnie Penner: So again, for the 24-25 year we are looking at an anticipated decrease in our students within Sarasota County Schools.

JW: A new state law provides a fixed per-student dollar amount in taxpayer funding for private school tuition. That, in turn, has raised concerns about bleeding out public schools. But Penner said that out-migration of students from public to private schools has remained at the same pace, and she believes it will remain so. She did not explain why.

BP: We were losing about 4,000 students the last couple of years, but the proportions have remained the same. The proportion in the private school in the last three years has been around 15 to 17%. And that trend continues. It has been continuing, so we’re not seeing anything that gives us high alarm in regards to where those students are going. If anything, what we’re seeing more so are students that are moving out of county, are moving out of state. That’s where we’re seeing the largest out-migration.

JW: She said so while displaying a graph forecasting rising charter school and private-school voucher enrollment.

That prompted concern by two of the five school board members.

When Robyn Marinelli asked whether the board will get specific numbers about students leaving for private schools, Penner pointed out that the state has taken over that aspect of student number accounting.

Robyn Marinelli: Thank you. On the the family empowerment scholarships and the others, I know that the HB 1 just started. But at some point, will we know what school or schools were impacted? .. Will we be able to break that down? Are you going to tell us, and possibly why people are leaving? Because I know you have said, Mr. Connor, that we want Sarasota County to be the school of choice, so that’s why I’m asking if we’ll know what schools, and will your team be able to analyze and try to make sense…

BP: Up until this 23-24 school year, we actually input the data into the school’s system to report those .. students. So we were able to see where those students were going. Maybe not as much where they transitioned from, because it could have been a lot of different places. But we can at least see where the students are attending. The [Florida] Department of Education took that over last year. So we’re not getting the same kind of data as we have been getting. There is a place on the school choice website, where I can see, I can pull down, the private schools within Sarasota County and see what their enrollment is overall, as well as whether they take any of the different scholarship opportunities. I’m waiting for them to update that for this year. They’ve got about, last I looked, about a third of our schools or private schools within Sarasota that have reported for that this current year. So we can look at it a little bit that way, but as far as very specific information, I’ve not seen anything.

JW: Tom Edwards said he was “alarmed” by migration towards private schools. He suggested the school district should keep track of students moving towards private education, rather than leaving the task to the state.

Tom Edwards: I am alarmed that we go from 2,944 to 4,688 in scholarships. That is concerning, and you see the that it is a trend. To follow up on what Mrs. Marinelli has brought up, I think it’s important just because the DOE has captured a particular function that we have a better mechanism. Because one of the questions I have here is where is migration actually captured? Where is that captured? And I think we should challenge our schools to capture that data. So that we precisely, if we’re making this thrust and an investment in customer service and changing the culture into customer service, I think we should know where we might be having issues with migration based upon customer service. That’s to me low-hanging fruit that I would suggest that we find a way. I don’t know that it necessarily has to challenge Mrs. Penner, as much as it should challenge the administration.

JW: This has been Johannes Werner, reporting for WSLR News.


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