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Opinion
Palm Coast Thursday, Jul. 14, 2022 3 weeks ago

MY VIEW: School district should focus on quality of schools, not quantity

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The district is sitting on tens of millions of dollars while asking the community for more.
by: Guest Writer

by: Michael Chiumento

Since 2005, Flagler Schools has collected impact fees for each new home constructed and spent a portion of that money on new school capital facilities. But according to the district’s chief financial officer, it is now sitting on more than $30,000,000 in its impact fee account. Additionally, the district has properties valued at more than $13,000,000 by the Property Appraiser’s Office which are vacant and not currently planned for schools.  

Impact fees are a method by which new residential growth pays its fair share toward new schools. Some of these impact fees are used to pay the debt associated with the 2005 construction of Rymfire Elementary School, as well as Matanzas High School. Impact fees will increase by more than 50% in September. 

In November, the District will ask voters to extend the half-penny sales tax for another 10 years. That money can only be used for capital projects (expenditures that have a life cycle beyond five years). Yet the district still claims it needs more money to build new schools, even though there has been no substantial growth since 2009! 

Until 2021, the school district’s highest enrollment had been in 2009 — 12,975 students. According to the Florida Department of Education, this most recent school year’s October 2021 enrollment was 13,131, which includes 864 students at Imagine School. Over a 12-year period, the school district enrollment grew by 156 students.  This is an annual growth rate of 0.10%!  Even when we look at the past four years, when residential development has been near its pre-Great Recession high, we see enrollment in the year before the pandemic at just 12,946.  

Since 2009, the district’s enrollment has not increased. However, the district has continued to collect school impact fees from its residents. Is there growth in our community? Yes, but that growth is not significantly impacting our schools. In fact, based on the school district’s most recent school impact fee study, the student generation rate per single-family residence is 35% lower than the student generation rate in their 2004 study. I hate to say it folks, but we’re getting older, not younger.

Recognizing our lack of student growth, the School Board acted from the premise in 2020 that future student growth was minimal. First, on May 19, 2020, the School Board adopted its five-year Educational Plant Survey, indicating no growth for the foreseeable future and no plans to expand schools. Second, the school district hired the nationally recognized Davis Demographics company to review, study and forecast the District’s future.  

Davis presented its study and informed the board on June 10, 2020, that birth rates had declined, students generated per household had declined and Flagler County Schools would only grow its student population by 2% over the next 10 years.  

Shortly thereafter, the District’s staff and its new superintendent changed this outlook. Apparently, the District administration did not like the Davis survey, nor the Educational Plant Survey reports, because on Nov. 10, 2020, District staff informed the School Board that it was experiencing “unprecedented growth” and needed to collect a majority of all those impact fees from a developer or homebuilder at the time it started clearing the land … 24 months before the very first home in that sub-division could be occupied by a resident.  

This was during the height of the pandemic, when the Florida Department of Education reported that the district’s non-charter school enrollment was 12,001.

On Oct.19, 2021, contrary to the plan presented one year earlier, the district stated it will need to construct a high school expansion at Matanzas in the amount of $17,500,000 for a building of 20,000 square feet housing 380 students. 

The school district also represented that it needs to construct a new $68,000,000 middle school the very next year. 

Lastly, the district represented that it needs to construct a $92,500,000 high school the year after that. 

Essentially, the school district asserts to the community that it needs to spend $178,000,000 in new schools — including a high school expansion, a new high school, and a new middle school — even though our student enrollment is nearly the same as it was in 2009.  

Despite no substantial growth in students and the fact that it has ¬more than $43,000,000 ($30,000,000 in cash and $13,000,000 worth of vacant property not currently planned for schools), the district is demanding that the community provide more money to them by collecting our impact fees years earlier than we build our houses. Why? 

We are already seeing development slow due to material price increases and interest rates.  We are concerned that the district’s illogical spending spree, without much historical student population growth, will cause our taxes to increase in these recessionary times, amid significant inflation and gas prices. 

With four of our school getting grades of “C,” we believe the district should focus on quality of schools, not quantity.  

Editor's note: Read the school district's response to this letter here.

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