Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 at 9:00am

Lake County Schools Enrollment Crisis

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The enrollments in Lake County Public Schools have only increased six-tenths of 1%, or 236 students, since the start of school one year ago.  This may signal a dramatic need to decrease school projections and budgets.  More troubling is that during last school year (2007-2008) the Lake County School District lost 755 students from the first day of the year to the last day of school.

Usually, elementary school enrollments are the real barometer of overall school growth.  Since the beginning of the 2007-2008 year, versus the start of this year, there are 75 less elementary students enrolled in Lake County Schools, and there are only 12 more students than at the end of last year.  These numbers suggest to us that younger families are moving out of the county and that the growth of the working population has peeked and may be dropping.  These numbers run parallel with the recent 14 year high of 7.1% unemployment for Lake County.

Year-to-year, starting enrollments for middle school and high school students increased by 247, but that could be contributed to the failing economy, making it necessary for families to move students from private schools to public schools.  During last school year, the largest decline in student enrollments took place in the middle school and high school ranks, as those student populations dropped by 851 students.  Huge drops in higher grade populations are normal, as these kids begin to encounter heavy dropout ratios, teen pregnancies, and students leaving to pursue GEDs.

Consequently, the Florida Inventory of School Houses (FISH) Report shows Lake County now has 48,967 student stations compared to 49,232 at the end of the last year.  Some how or another, Lake County lost 265 student stations, despite the opening of East Ridge Middle School and Lake Hills Elementary School this past spring.  It appears the District is reclassifying closed schools incorrectly, and Citizens for Better Government, L.L.C. still contends that old schools which are closed should be counted in the student station equation.  Those schools were paid for by the taxpayers of this County as schools and many of these facilities could serve as schools once again.

Based on raw student station numbers, Lake County has 8,125 more student stations than they do students, and the current year-to-year growth trend suggests there is a 34 year oversupply of student stations.  Sadly, based on the current anti-growth/business leadership on the Lake County Board of County Commissioners a continued economic death spiral is probable, and the drops in enrollment could dwarf last year’s total fallout.

What does all of this mean?  First of all, the Lake County School Board has really tattooed the taxpayers of Lake County with permanent red ink, and the financial turmoil of schools appears to be apocalyptic in nature.  Cindy Barrow and the rest of the School Board have spent wildly with the people’s credit card, and they did so by pulling every heart string they could, using nonexistent overcrowding and playing upon people’s emotions.  With the recent collapse of major Wall Street firms, the bonds Lake County has in place to pay for all of these schools will probably incur much heavier expenses, as slow student population growth suggests these bonds are less viable.

Immediately, Lake County should shelve all construction projects until a clear trend is evident on school population growth and they begin to use up current over capacity.  Next, the School Board should make a game plan on which schools should be mothballed until they are needed, and classes should be consolidated wherever they can to increase maximum productivity of teachers and administrators.

There should be an immediate hiring and spending freeze put in place, and all non-essential, non-education functions should be eliminated by reducing staff 15%-20%.  With the decline in student enrollments and tax receipts, the School Board must look at some form of overall salary reduction for all staff members, probably in the 20% range.  Teachers did not create this mess and their pay should be off limit to any cuts.

Finally, the School Board needs to divest and sell all unused properties and buildings, even at bargain basement prices.  They must reduce maintenance and tax issues on unused properties, and retrieve dollars from dormant infrastructure to change their debt ratio.

These student population numbers, especially the elementary numbers, reflect a School District and County in crisis.  Unfortunately, not one local political leader has come forward with real actions and solutions.  Pretending we are not in the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression will only lead to further erosion for the people’s money and trust.  Lake County Schools must take action immediately, or face financial disaster.

Lake County Schools 2008-2009 1st 20-Day Student Membership Trend

Florida Inventory of School Houses (FISH) Report

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