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Palm Beach County schools: Enrollment down more than 5,000 students from last year

Some concerned drop in students could hit budget
Posted at 8:24 AM, Sep 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-17 23:39:29-04

LOXAHATCHEE, Fla. — Student enrollment is down in the School District of Palm Beach County, according to data provided to Contact 5 by the district.

The district's enrollment dropped 5,450 from last year, with kindergarten alone down 1,587 students.

The drop in enrollment could impact the district's funding, with a potential loss of more than $39.5 million. The state currently provides about $8,000 per student.

The school district is planning a student count Oct. 5 through Oct. 9 to update enrollment numbers.

Contact 5 spoke with school board member Erica Whitfield.

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"We're not there yet," Whitfield said when asked about potential layoffs. "We are trying our best to hold off as long as possible."

Whitfield, who herself recovered from a bout with COVID-19, is hopeful more students will return to the district once they feel comfortable, but worries about the consequences if enrollment numbers don't rebound.

"If we don't have children to serve, then we don't necessarily have the need for all of those employees, so that worries me the most, because I just don't want to see anybody lose their job," Whitfield told Contact 5. "The majority of the school district budget goes to paying salaries."

Erica Whitfield, Palm Beach County school board member discusses decline in enrollment numbers
"The majority of the school district budget goes to paying salaries," Palm Beach County school board member Erica Whitfield says.

District data shows charter school enrollment is up nearly 700 students. It's unclear where the more than 4,000 other students went.

"There are some children who we have yet to find," Whitfield said. "They have not registered in the school system, and we're hoping Monday when the school system is fully open for brick-and-mortar that some will come back to us."

District employees also worry a budget squeeze could mean job cuts down the road.

"I've been scared. I've been anxious. I've been worried," Lemun Fields Jr., a custodial foreperson at Pierce Hammock Elementary School in Loxahatchee, said.

Fields is a board member with the local SEIU that represents more than 8,000 non-instructional employees in the district.

"If that funding goes, then I lose my job, and so does my employees and everyone else (who) works for the district," Fields told Contact 5.

Fields, a husband and father of five, spoke with Contact 5 outside the school just days ahead of in-person learning resuming.

"Having kids return to school now increases my chance of catching COVID," Fields said. "So that anxiety is there."

Lemun Fields, custodial foreperson at Pierce Hammock Elementary School
Lemun Fields, a custodial foreperson at Pierce Hammock Elementary School, is concerned about what the enrollment numbers will mean for his future.

SEIU President Alphonso Mayfield told Contact 5 he's very concerned about what the drop in enrollment could mean for district funding.

"People are concerned that if the budget situation does not shape up, what that will mean for their jobs long-term," Mayfield said in an interview.

District CFO Mike Burke touched on the dip in enrollment at a recent school board meeting.

"I am concerned that the enrollment is going to decline significantly, and that could add to our budget troubles," Burke told the school board.

5,450 students leave Palm Beach County schools

Burke said the district has a $42 million reserve, and a budget reduction this past spring saved another $17 million.

The district is also banking on a statewide emergency order, which funds districts for the fall semester based on enrollment forecasts rather than actual enrollment.

Still, Fields worries about the declined enrollment's long-term impact and what could mean for his and thousands of other district jobs.

"Just what is the next day holding for us?" Fields noted. "What is our future if we don't get a grip on COVID-19?"

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