BROOKSVILLE — Here's a riddle that might trouble even the most seasoned school superintendent: How do you boost Hernando County's enrollment past 23,000 even if no extra students move to the county?
Superintendent Wayne Alexander may earn some creativity points for his answer: Woo homeschoolers back into the public schools.
Nearly 760 county children were educated at home last year. At $3,961 or more per student in state funding, their return to the public schools could bring about $3-million to a budget that was facing a $4.5-million shortfall last spring, said finance director Deborah Bruggink.
"Absolutely, I'm telling you," she said. "From a curricular perspective, if you're offering different things, you might entice some parents back" to the public schools.
At 6 p.m. Thursday, Alexander plans to roll up his sleeves and make that very pitch at an open house for homeschooled students and their families.
He shouldn't underestimate the difficulty of that task, said Barb Mesh, a homeschooling consultant and former public school counselor who has run workshops for Hernando families.
Many left the public schools for religious reasons, seeking a more spiritual education than public schools can legally offer, she said.
Others object to testing and other government mandates, worry about bad influences or simply think they can do a better job.
"They see the moral decay in the climate," Mesh said. "They see it in every avenue of society, and see it in the schools as well. So when you see the superintendent say, 'Hey, come back full time,' I would say (many homeschoolers) wouldn't be interested because of the reasons they pulled out."
In a mailing sent out last week to homeschooling families, Alexander acknowledged that skepticism.
"Somewhere along the line, many of you grew disenchanted with the county's schools," he wrote, saying he would "appreciate the opportunity to hear from you and gain an understanding of your reasons for leaving or choosing not to attend our school district."
He made the case for the district in an enclosed newsletter titled "Opportunities Abound." It described new offerings like the International Baccalaureate program at Springstead High, job-oriented high school career academies, a gifted education center, and new elementary programs in technology and foreign languages.
That approach could work if it tempts some families to try out district offerings a la carte, potentially bringing the district a portion of the available state funding, Mesh said.
They might come to participate in only wresting or school band, but if they have a good experience, they could try something else.
And don't underestimate the drawing power of a new school like Explorer K-8, which opens this fall in Spring Hill with a special center for gifted children.
"People like new schools," said James Knight, director of student services. "When we open a new school, our home education numbers go down."
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.