Brevard Public Schools faces $20 million budget hit from enrollment decline

After an enrollment decline of thousands of students, the Brevard Public School District faces uncertainty in its budget planning for next year.

The school district projects that it could lose $20.7 million in state revenue from declining enrollment, district Chief Financial Officer Cindy Lesinski told the Brevard County School Board at a Feb. 23 budget workshop. Additional costs will squeeze the budget further, and although stimulus money is on its way, it’s not clear how much the school district might get or how the funds’ use will be restricted.

About 14,000 fewer Brevard County students showed up for class on the first day of classes in fall 2020, though the gap has since narrowed to under 3,800, Brevard Public Schools Superintendent Mark Mullins said at the workshop.

Almost 1,400 more students are being home schooled and 100 more are in private school compared to last year, Mullins said. The district saw 700 fewer kindergarteners and pre-k students enrolled.

District administration expects enrollment to return to normal over the next two years.

“Allow me to make a public service announcement,” Mullins said at the workshop. “Whatever it takes, we want our kids back. We are ready for our kids. And I think we’ve demonstrated that we can support our children and our families safely in our schools across the district.”

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Mullins said 87 students who enrolled last year and didn’t this year remain unaccounted for. The district has been sending law enforcement and social workers to students’ last known addresses and knocking on neighbors doors.

“Those are very disconcerting situations for us and for our administrators,” Mullins said.

Most of the district’s budget relies on state funding and local revenue generated mainly through property taxes, divvied up based on projected enrollment numbers. In the 2021-2022 school year, each full time student is worth about $7,680 in funding.

For the 2020-2021 school year, the state allowed Florida schools to keep all their state funding regardless of their actual enrollment. However, funding next year will likely be based on the school district’s true enrollment.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls sent a letter to Florida superintendents Feb. 11 stating that the Florida House would not continue the “hold harmless” provision through the 2021-2022 school year and warning them not to use federal aid to maintain regular operating expenses.

“These federal dollars are one-time payments and should not be used to pay for or augment recurring obligations,” Sprowls wrote. “I caution you in the strongest possible terms to align your recurring expenses with your recurring revenues.”

BPS has already received at least $15 million in aid from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. An additional $900 billion federal stimulus bill signed Dec. 27 set aside $81.9 billion for education, including $54.3 billion for K-12 public schools and $22.7 billion for higher education.

Before any of it reaches BPS, state legislators will set parameters on how school districts can use the funds. Much of the money may be restricted to COVID-19-related expenses, meaning the district may not be able to use it to make up for the enrollment drop.

“The budget is a big mystery,” Brevard School Board Chair Misty Belford said. “We are still very much up in the air.”

But the school district can’t afford to wait to start developing a budget. It will know the state’s plans when Gov. Ron DeSantis releases his budget by June 30, but BPS’s next budget year starts July 1. The school district will therefore adopt a budget as best it can, then amend it to match reality.

The school district will also be facing increased costs next year, including a $7 million contribution to the healthcare plan, a $2.2 million increase in retirement contributions and $87,000 more in salaries due to the increase in minimum wage, among other expenses, Lesinski told the board at the Feb. 23 meeting.

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The school district also will be paying more for textbooks next year to meet new state standards, taking a roughly $10 million bite out of the budget.

Depending on the state’s restrictions on aid, “We’ll have to look at things like cutting programming, potentially eliminating opportunities for students and reducing staffing costs, although a lot of that could probably be handled through attrition,” Belford said.

Last year the district eliminated regional busing for students to attend “choice” schools further away in the county, saving the county about $1 million.

Brevard Federation of Teachers President Anthony Colucci said the union isn’t very worried about layoffs or staff reductions because many teachers retired or resigned this year. They do worry their health care premiums increasing.

Teachers are concerned about class sizes and increased workloads, Colucci said. They would like to see more teachers hired and substitute positions better funded.

“That’s a major concern of our teachers, because when we don’t have substitutes, it falls on their back to cover those classes,” Colucci said. “So, they would like to hopefully see the board put some more funding into substitute positions in order to attract substitutes.”

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