14,000 fewer students could carry $100 mill price tag, but BPS leaders aren’t panicking — yet

Florida Today | by Eric Rogers | August 26, 2020

An initial head count on the first day of school found about 14,000 fewer Brevard County students showed up for classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a difference that under normal circumstances could cost Brevard Public Schools more than $100 million in state funding.

Monday’s tally of virtual and brick-and-mortar classes, along with charter schools and homeschooling options, totaled 62,245 students, about 18% fewer than the 76,275 projected in the spring, according to school district data.

With funding from the Florida Education Finance Program for the 2020-21 school year set at $7,737 per student, that could equal a potential loss of up to $109 million from the district budget.

But school leaders aren’t panicking — yet.

“At this moment, working with staff, we’re not alarmed with enrollment,” Superintendent Mark Mullins told School Board members at Tuesday’s meeting.

For one thing, the number wasn’t final, and likely wasn’t accurate.

A list of issues hampered the morning count, which was done manually by school employees, including some students arriving late due to busing changes and a nationwide Zoom outage that prevented a number of students from logging in to the district’s eLearning platform.

“To validate eLearning kids, we had to see them online. Some kids didn’t log on until later, they got bumped off from Zoom so we couldn’t count them,” Mullins said.

While the district did lose about 1,000 students to non-BPS homeschooling programs, which do not count toward enrollment for funding purposes, officials also expect to recoup some or all of about 5,500 students whose families by Monday had yet to notify the district of their enrollment plans.

“Our principals are working right now to reach out to their families and make contact and provide the support they need, and understand what our numbers are,” Mullins said at the meeting.

Officials mentioned another reason to be optimistic: a state order requiring brick-and-mortar schools to open by the end of August also pledged to fund districts for the first half of the year based on spring enrollment projections rather than actual student counts.

That meant the district was unlikely to see an immediate financial impact from any drop in fall enrollment.

“They promised to hold us harmless through the fall and not to use the October survey numbers,” Brevard Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Cindy Lesinski said.

Parts of the order tying school funding to compliance with the requirement to open campuses were struck down Monday after a circuit judge in Tallahassee ruled the order violated a state constitutional mandate to provide students a “safe” learning environment.

Brevard School Board attorney Paul Gibbs noted the judge’s decision did not affect the state’s promise to pay based on projected rather than actual enrollment.

“He left that in as constitutional, as long as it wasn’t tied to opening brick-and-mortar by the end of August,” Gibbs said.

The injunction was automatically placed on hold, however, after the state filed an appeal Monday evening, leaving the future of the order and the implication for school districts in limbo.

Manatee Elementary School students in Viera arrive for classes on Monday, August 24. Brevard public schools have reopened with precautions in place due to the coronavirus.

And although an immediate funding hit was unlikely, that did not preclude a future loss if the district was unable to overcome the enrollment deficit later in the year, board member Katye Campbell pointed out.

“We’ll get (funds) according to our projections from last spring, but … there’s no promise (from the state) that wont be adjusted when we get our numbers in the February count,” she noted.

Lesinski suggested the board continue to watch for savings and set aside any money saved on teacher lapse due to lower enrollment, raising the possibility the district may have to pay back the state come the spring if students counts remain low.

The potential financial implications alarmed board member Tina Descovich, who on Tuesday pushed Mullins on his response to the news.

“I appreciate you’re not panicked,” Descovich told Mullins on the dais, “but that’s a $100 million price tag if those students don’t enroll in our school. … I think it’s okay to panic. That changes the look of Brevard Public Schools.”

“If that continues to maintain, absolutely,” Mullins said, adding it was still too early to tell what, if any, impact may result.

“We’re monitoring it early now and carefully considering what the projections are, watching our numbers and looking closely at our schools,” he said. “It is a difficult year to speculate what could happen.”

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