By: Councilman Robert Weinroth Special to the Boca Newspaper
Boca Raton prides itself on its ability to attract new and relocating businesses to our city. Several years ago we added a business development manager to help facilitate this effort. It has been a collaborative effort with the state and county, which has resulted in greater economic opportunities for our residents. The downside of our success has been the pressure it has placed on our school system.
The City of Boca Raton does not run its own public school system. The schools within Florida are organized by counties and the operations of the Palm Beach County Schools is the responsibility of the elected members of the School Board of Palm Beach County.
School crowding issues have been around for years. When our family arrived in Boca Raton over twenty-five years ago, portables dotted the landscape adjacent to the brick and mortar schools. Eventually, as new developments were built out new schools were built and existing ones expanded to provide the additional capacity allowing many of the portables to be carted away.
Overcrowding is, again, occurring within our public schools due, in part to their improved quality, making it less likely a parent is going to feel justified in paying tuition to a private school when their neighborhood school is “A-rated.” Case in point, Calusa Elementary has seen an influx of students as parents have opted to move their children there from private schools.
As residents within our community get older, they are selling their residences to young families, adding further pressure on our public schools. All of this is coupled with the influx of new residents. Florida attracts over 300,000 new residents each year and many are choosing South Florida as their new home.
All of these forces have aligned to make Boca Raton Middle the county’s most crowded school with over 1,500 students on a campus built for just over 1,400. Things are not much better at Boca Raton High with a student census exceeding 3,500 on a campus built for about 2,900.
The shifting demographics have added over 500 students to the public schools within Boca Raton in the past three years. Young families are moving in to replace the empty nesters due, in large part, to the successful efforts to attract tech companies to our city just as the end of the recession reignited our real estate market.
Florida’s Growth Management Act requires public services (e.g., roads and emergency services) to be in place before development is approved but school concurrency is specifically excluded making it impossible for a municipality to deny a development proposal based on a lack of school capacity. And, the School District can’t even consider a new school until an existing reaches 120% of its capacity and even then, before the state will approve a new school it will challenge the School District to demonstrate that boundary changes couldn’t address the problem.
Municipalities like Boca Raton have the option of creating charter districts to supplement the public school system. While this “solution” was rejected in the past, this might be a viable alternative if the legislature does not address the funding issues. It would, however, require the City Council to become the governing board of a charter school, an idea that may or may not sit well with a majority of our residents.
Notwithstanding the fact that Boca Raton has excellent schools, and the recently approved sales surtax will provide funding to replace Addison Mizner and Verde, however, as noted above, it is incumbent on our state legislators to address this issue on a proactive basis to support its ongoing efforts to attract high paying jobs to Florida.
Florida is likely poised to enjoy a surge in businesses relocating from the Northeast as they respond to proposed tax code revisions. That being said, unless the necessary investment in public education is made, overcrowding will continue to plague our current and future residents.