Despite a reputation as one of the nation’s hottest markets, with steady population growth since the pandemic, enrollment is dropping in Hillsborough County’s traditional public schools.
Twenty-day student counts released this week show schools run by the school district had a net loss of 1,581 students when compared with the 20th day of 2022-23.
By comparison, charter schools — which get state funding but are managed independently — grew by 2,528 students. The charter total, which now accounts for 17% of public school students, includes two schools from the IDEA network that report to the state and not the district.
Hillsborough’s K-8 schools grew by 2,292 students, reflecting the growing popularity of that format. But elementary and middle schools showed a net loss of 3,723.
The county’s population is expected to have grown by 8.3% between 2021 and 2026, a greater rate than the state, region or nation, according to the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council.
But the school district’s data makes it clear that the added population is being offset by educational choices that families exercise outside the traditional school system.
District leaders are concerned not only about charter growth but also the long-term effects of a state law that this year expanded the use of tax-paid vouchers for home-school and private school education.
Step Up For Students, the entity that manages the voucher program, has tried to allay fears that these scholarships will trigger an exodus from public schools. In a statement released in response to questions from 31 community organizations, Step Up said only 13% of 122,895 students who are new to the voucher system came from public schools.
Specific to Hillsborough, Step Up told the Tampa Bay Times that 867 students who previously attended public schools are newly enrolled in private schools on a Florida Tax Credit or Family Empowerment scholarship. “This represents only 0.39% of the 224,149 full-time students enrolled in Hillsborough schools in 2022-23,” communications chief Scott Kent said in an email.
Still, issues such as these are being invoked as the district tries to hold the line on teacher pay. At a negotiating session Wednesday, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association presented a proposal that would start pay for the largest group of teachers at $48,000 annually, with a ceiling of $74,100 after 25 years. An earlier, more ambitious proposal showed salaries ranging from $50,000 to $80,200.
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But, citing the 20-day numbers, district human relations manager Danielle Shotwell told the teachers, “We stand by our initial proposal,” with salaries ranging from the state minimum of $47,500 to $70,750.
“We are down 1,500 students,” Shotwell said. “Charters are up 2,000. So I guess we know where some of them are going, right? That is something we all share a concern about — all of us. But as those numbers decrease, the budget has to be adjusted.”
The union, seeking to prove the district can afford a raise package, delivered a detailed presentation in which it showed that, in recent years, the district has spent far less than budgeted on teacher pay. This happens for a number of reasons, including unfilled vacancies. The yearly differences have ranged from $57 million to $123 million.
The general fund reserve account, meanwhile, has also grown from 6.4% of revenues in 2022 to 20% in the year that ended in June.
“We believe that the money is there and available to use,” union executive director Brittni Wegmann said. “We know that our budgets at home are built on priorities. And when you have money available, would you hold it back to people in our family who are struggling to pay their bills?”
The district says it will have a response to the union presentation at the next bargaining session on Monday.
Similar arguments were made when the two sides reached an impasse last year. The district said then that the difference between money budgeted for teacher pay and money spent does not equate to a windfall, as many expenses change over the course of the year.
There is also the prospect that federal COVID-19 relief funds will be cut off. When that happens, the district will have to return to its core budget for items that were being covered with the relief money.
One remedy the district pursued under former Superintendent Addison Davis was a plan to even out enrollment levels and close schools that could not be run effectively. Just Elementary closed in June. Five more campuses — Adams, Monroe and McLane middle schools and Cleveland and Kimbell elementary schools — are scheduled to close at the end of this school year.
District leaders plan to reopen Just and Adams under new formats.