Bracing for the year, education changes on horizon

PETER.WILLOTT@STAUGUSTINE.COM Pacetti Bay Middle School students are dismissed from school in 2014.

The new school year is already prompting raised eyebrows — particularly in St. Johns County — where a series of local- and state-initiated changes will affect the education landscape in upcoming months.

Catch up below with a quick summary on the school district’s year ahead, including financial shortcomings and successes, student growth, new schools, policies and a change in leadership.

Budget triumphs and woes

As the district braces for another wave of student growth, the Florida Legislature will duke out differences regarding education funding, which has consecutively shorted the district capital dollars.

Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed 2017-18 budget designates an ambitious $21 billion toward education, boosting district funding from 0.72 percent to 2.74 percent, or an increase of $17.6 million.

Education funds, should the Legislature approve Scott’s version of the budget, lean heavily on $557.9 million in additional property taxes from rising property values.

The district will have to keep its fingers crossed, though, since the Legislature has consecutively rolled back the required local millage rate to offer tax breaks to property owners, jilting millions of dollars from Florida schools.

Should Scott’s budget pass, the school district will add $285.3 million to its general fund, and per-student funding will increase to $7,232.40, $193 more per student than last year.

And while state funding is still up for speculation, one thing the district is gaining results from is its half-cent sales tax.

The tax exceeded initial projections by $4 million in the first of its 10-year life span, raising $17 million for new school construction and various other capital projects.

More students, more schools

Three new schools are currently under construction to relieve the bloated student population in northern parts of the county.

Elementary School “M,” a $23.8 million project in World Golf Village adding 871 permanent student stations and funded through the half-cent sales tax, will open come August.

Two K-8 schools in Aberdeen and Nocatee will cost over $36 million apiece and open in the 2018-19 school year. The schools will be funded through the half-cent sales tax, impact and proportionate share mitigation fees.

The additions may add a little elbow room, but not for long if the district continues experiencing astronomical growth rates. Last year, the student population grew by 2,000, a record-breaking increase of 5.36 percent.

District representatives will push the Legislature to increase capital funding, which has consistently wavered in recent years. In the meantime, a combination of school concurrency and half-cent sales tax fees will shoulder the brunt of foreseeable construction projects.

School choice and testing alternatives

House Bill 7029, the “school choice” bill, will rear its multifaceted head this year.

The bill was approved during last year’s legislative session and allows students to transfer into any school of their choosing, regardless of the location, provided the school has room.

The bill may sound threatening to a cramped school district, but the state has offered leeway by granting districts the right to set their own capacity limits.

So far, the St. Johns County School District only has three elementary schools and one middle school with enough room to offer school choice seats. The controlled open enrollment plan sets the district’s capacity limit to 80 percent based on its five-year growth rate.

Wary residents need not be alarmed. The district will offer its 384 seats based off a lottery system prioritizing in-county applicants. Out-of-county residents are eligible for seats only after local students have been placed.

Parents rezoning their students due to school choice are required to provide their own transportation. Once a student is given a seat, he or she can remain in the school until completion of its highest grade, but will have to reapply for another school or return to their zoned area upon finishing.

Another state-initiated policy will offer new testing alternatives for third-grade students who failed the reading portion of the Florida Standard Assessment.

Third-grade students are required to score a Level 2 or higher on the Reading FSA to earn promotion into fourth grade. Students scoring below FSA requirements must complete a state-assigned portfolio demonstrating reading proficiency, or score at or above the 45th percentile on the SAT 10 Reading Comprehension Subtest to earn promotion.

The Florida Department of Education has now added several testing alternatives to its website in addition to the SAT 10 and reading portfolio. The district is currently running a pilot of one of the approved options in elementary schools.

The alternatives are meant only for students struggling to pass the FSA reading requirement who qualify through the district’s defined “good cause” exemptions.

New year, new leader

The district has a new superintendent, but Tim Forson is hardly a stranger in St. Johns County.

A yearlong national search ended with Forson’s victory late last year, the board voting based on his 36-year career within the district as well as his experience with its growth burdens and financial hurdles.

He replaces former superintendent Joe Joyner, who spent 14 years in the position, during which the district rose to its No.1, A-rated status within the state.

Forson has been on the job a little over a month and has already made his presence known to legislators in Tallahassee.

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