School Board blocks some school choice applications, eliminates furlough day

Published Apr. 21, 2016

BROOKSVILLE — Some students who had hoped to switch to or remain at five schools in the Hernando School District next year will instead be forced to attend their new neighborhood schools.

Even after the School Board redrew boundaries last year to ease overcrowding, concerns remained, and board members addressed those during a workshop on Tuesday.

"We don't have to do the same thing for every school, and we're not required to," board Chairman Matt Foreman said, noting that not all schools face the same limitations. "That might upset some people."

The board also took off the table the possibility of a money-saving furlough day for district employees. It will use leftover textbook money and some discretionary money coughed up by schools and departments to bridge the budget gap.

"Eliminating the furlough day has been a goal of this board since we started talking about furlough days," Foreman said.

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The School Board promised several weeks ago to grant school choice to fifth-, eighth-, 11th- and 12th-graders who applied, and said it would consider 10th-grade applications, then others, based on enrollment figures.

At Tuesday's workshop, district staffers presented the board with a spreadsheet that included the number of applications for school choice at each school, the capacity of each school and the enrollment at each school if the board approved the choice applications.

After seeing the figures, the board decided, for the most part, to close five schools to choice, forcing some students to attend their newly zoned schools for the 2016-17 school year.

"We didn't know what the numbers would look like until we went through this painstaking process of putting it all together," said deputy superintendant Eric Williams, who presented the numbers to the board.

Already at 92 percent of capacity, board members felt Suncoast Elementary School could not absorb the 146 students who had applied to attend. The district staff estimated the extra students would have pushed Suncoast to 108 percent of capacity.

The board also rejected the applications of 180 and 100 students hoping to attend Explorer K-8 and Powell Middle schools, respectively. Both schools would have become overcrowded, according to district figures.

At the high schools, board members decided to allow all 10th-graders who had submitted applications to attend the schools of their choice. But the board denied all other applications for Springstead and Weeki Wachee high schools.

Board members instructed the staff to approve all of the remaining applications to attend the other 17 district schools.

Some students who had their requests denied, the board acknowledged, applied because they were attracted to a particular program, like band or ROTC. In that case, board members said, students could apply for a hardship review with the superintendent. Or they could apply to another school that isn't overcrowded and has a similar program.

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There was consensus among board members to use leftover money originally earmarked for textbooks to help cover a budget gap that otherwise would have led to a furlough day for all district staffers.

But the textbook money, $489,000, isn't enough to cover the $542,000 gap.

To make up the difference, the school district will tap into $192,000 of discretionary money that schools and departments returned to the district. Board members agreed to use $53,000 to fill the gap, but disagreed about what to do with the remaining $139,000.

Board member Mark Johnson said he wanted to hold on to the money, given the district is so strapped for cash.

But board member Gus Guadagnino said if schools and departments gave up the cash to help avoid a furlough day, the board should return the rest of it rather than using it for something else. Keeping it would be analogous to asking a friend for money for a new roof and then going on vacation, he said.

"I don't think anybody thinks we're going on a vacation here," Foreman said, though he admitted the analogy resonated with him.

Board members are set to vote on reallocating the textbook money and eliminating the furlough day at their meeting on May 3. They tabled the discussion of what to do with the remaining discretionary funds.

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or Follow @josh_solomon15.