Thousands gone from Tampa Bay schools, early student counts show

Districts protected their funding by agreeing to open in-person classes in August.
Students move through the line toward the school entrance, on the first day of school for Hillsborough County students, at Hillsborough High School on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020 in Tampa.
Students move through the line toward the school entrance, on the first day of school for Hillsborough County students, at Hillsborough High School on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Sept. 15, 2020|Updated Sept. 15, 2020

As they prepared to reopen classrooms in August, school district officials across Tampa Bay made one point clear: They chose to do so — at least in large part — because of the money.

Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran told districts that their per-student funding would be protected at pre-coronavirus projections if they established plans that included in-person instruction from the outset of the academic year. Corcoran’s order also allowed districts to get full funding for the students regardless of whether they attended online or on campus.

Or if they didn’t show up at all. And that is happening.

As schools take their daily attendance in the run-up to the official enrollment count, they’re finding that the state’s offer is keeping them whole financially, though some battles remain over the appropriateness of opening buildings as early as they did. The 1st District Court of Appeal has yet to rule on the Florida Education Association’s lawsuit challenging the state order, while many districts struggle with issues ranging from virus cases to teaching models.

During a debate over “simultaneous teaching” on Monday, Pinellas County administrators noted that their schools are about 5,000 students shy of projections issued in the spring. The state planned for Pinellas to have 98,548 students.

In revealing another round of financial woes in Hillsborough County schools, the superintendent and his team said the district lost about 20,000 students to options such as home schooling and private schooling. Initially, the state projected the district to grow by nearly 4,500 students, to 223,019.

Pasco County planners continued to pore over numbers to ensure their accuracy, but signaled that enrollment so far has not come close to the 1,900 increase — to 78,126 students — that the state once said the district could expect. Instead, the district has seen a decrease.

By accepting the state’s waivers, which Corcoran and others stressed were offered at superintendents' request, the districts took steps to ensure that these thousands of students who haven’t shown up won’t affect their bottom line.

Even so, they aren’t out of the woods yet.

Heading toward a final budget approval later in the day, Pasco County School Board member Alison Crumbley mentioned the issue that’s on the minds of so many officials.

“The deficit at the state level is really pretty terrifying,” Crumbley said.

So far, the Department of Education’s funding waiver covers only the first semester. If the thousands of students don’t return to the districts, they still could lose millions of dollars.

Corcoran has said the department will revisit the waivers later in the year and determine whether to extend them. The outcome could depend on whether lawmakers hold a special session and change the education appropriations.

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Some observers have speculated that the student numbers will rebound if and when the coronavirus pandemic recedes. Critics, meanwhile, have predicted that the public school system will take another hit as families decide to stick with their new choices.