Florida schools will take Puerto Rico students. But who will pay?

A row of school buses lines the parking lot of the Hernando County Schools Transportation Center in Spring Hill in July. 

 [CHARLIE KAIJO | Tampa Bay Times]
A row of school buses lines the parking lot of the Hernando County Schools Transportation Center in Spring Hill in July. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Oct. 7, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Families from Puerto Rico who were displaced by Hurricane Maria won't have to worry about having transcripts or immunization records if they enroll their children in Florida's public schools this month, state education officials announced Friday.

But for county school districts, there's no guarantee the state will provide financial help to cover the costs of all those additional students.

The Florida Department of Education announced Friday public schools would get extra funding this fall only if they take in a set number of displaced Puerto Rican children — enough to increase district enrollment by at least 5 percent or a single school's enrollment by at least 25 percent.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools — the state's largest school district, with about 353,000 students enrolled last spring — would have to take in nearly 17,700 students from Puerto Rico to trigger the extra funding.

Hillsborough County Public Schools — the state's third largest school district, with about 211,000 students enrolled last school year — would have to take in nearly 10,500 students.

The state Department of Education did not answer questions from the Times/Herald by Friday evening about how it arrived at that formula and why funding wouldn't be assured to cover all new students.

Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., the House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman, told the Times/Herald that he told DOE officials "that we're going to have individual schools that are going to get clobbered by this."

He wondered what would happen if a school with 800 students got 175 or 195 new students, just below the 200 needed to trigger the extra money.

"They get nothing?" Diaz said.

Diaz said he urged DOE to look at enrollment issues on a school-by-school basis. He said officials are considering his recommendations.

"They're trying to find a place where they're not breaking the bank but where they're also providing what schools should get," he said.

Rep. Bob Cortes — an Altamonte Springs Republican of Puerto Rican descent — said he asked state education officials "for full funding, not formula based." He said he also wanted clarification from DOE that its orders apply to "all disaster victims, including Irma and Harvey. Not just Maria."

Cortes said Osceola County, which has a high Puerto Rican population, enrolled 165 new students just this week.

State Education Commissioner Pam Stewart's order Friday granted certain waivers to school districts through Nov. 1 to help reduce the red-tape of enrolling displaced Puerto Rican students. It also made it easier for teachers from Puerto Rico to be hired here without documentation of their professional certification.

Not addressed in the order: The part of a request by Diaz, Cortes and other lawmakers earlier this week that called for public schools to be assured extra state money to cover the potential uptick in enrollment.

After Maria, the Hillsborough School District has accepted 19 students from Puerto Rico and nine from the U.S. Virgin Islands so far, said district spokeswoman Tanya Arja.

"We don't know whether more students will be coming to Hillsborough County Public Schools because as we understand, many families are still trying to get off the island," she said.

She added that since lawmakers return to Tallahassee next week to begin committee hearings before the 2018 session, "we expect legislators will be discussing whether this new guidance will meet the needs of this current situation."

Legislators and school administrators had asked the DOE to make sure the new students would be counted in the annual fall enrollment survey, which is critical to calculating how much state money schools receive during the school year to fund their operations.

But in its memo, the DOE said that survey would serve as a baseline and additional Puerto Rican students enrolled after that time would be counted in a special "alternate survey" afterward — sometime before mid-December.

Diaz said DOE officials didn't specifically explain to him where the 5 percent and 25 percent benchmarks came from. He said he deduced they have to do with the timing of the enrollment survey, since the additional students wouldn't have been served in the first half of the fall semester.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark