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Will Broward close at least 5 schools next year? Ideas take shape as enrollment shrinks

Pines Middle School students head home after school on Thursday. The Pembroke Pines school is one of the most underenrolled in the county. The school district has released a list of schools it considers underenrolled, but stresses it doesn't "in any way constitute" those schools were "identified for repurposing or consolidation." (Carline Jean/South Florida ֱ)
Pines Middle School students head home after school on Thursday. The Pembroke Pines school is one of the most underenrolled in the county. The school district has released a list of schools it considers underenrolled, but stresses it doesn’t “in any way constitute” those schools were “identified for repurposing or consolidation.” (Carline Jean/South Florida ֱ)

With enrollment continuing to plummet, the Broward school district plans to close or overhaul at least five schools in 2025, with dozens more possible in the next few years.

The first affected schools should be determined by June, after the school district holds a series of public forums, meetings with community groups and School Board workshops. The district would spend the 2024-25 school year planning and making necessary changes to school boundaries.

The first public hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at Fort Lauderdale High School, followed by meetings at 6 p.m. Feb. 15 at the J.P. Taravella High in Coral Springs and Feb. 22 at Charles W. Flanagan High School.

The district also has of schools it considers underenrolled — defined by district policy as having enrollment that’s less than 70% its capacity.

That list includes 67schools, more than twice as many as four years ago, when 31 schools met the criteria for being underenrolled. These schools make up nearly a third of all schools in the district. Their average enrollment is 59% of their capacity.

About half the schools are concentrated in the south part of the county, particularly Miramar and Pembroke Pines, where charter schools are abundant. Other pockets of sparsely populated schools are in Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs.

“It’s unfortunate where the majority of underenrolled schools are located, on the south end and central Broward in high Black and Hispanic areas,” said Board member Torey Alston, who represents Miramar and Pembroke Pines.

In total, the district has 54,100 empty seats. Enrollment is expected to decline by another 4,300 students this fall, largely due to a spike in vouchers for private schools, district administrator Judith Marte told the School Board on Tuesday. The state Legislature passed a law last year allowing parents to qualify for vouchers to help cover private school tuition, regardless of their income.

With enrollment dropping and federal COVID aid ending, Broward schools now face a looming budget crisis, School Board members say. They directed Superintendent Peter Licata, who started in July, to develop a plan to close or repurpose at least five schools.

“We have to understand that the more money we spend on students that aren’t here, the less money we spend on students that are here,” Licata told the School Board on Tuesday. “We’ve been spending money on empty seats for a long time, and we have to face the harsh reality that there are not 54,100 students out there for us to regain.”

Although the district may start with just a few schools the first year, even more dramatic changes could come in future years.

“I think the eventual plan is to make sure that our student enrollment matches our facility needs,” Licata told the South Florida ֱ.

The school district may sell the property of any schools it closes or find another use for it. Licata said the district will look into combining multiple schools with low enrollment into one campus.

The school that appears the most vulnerable is Pines Middle in Pembroke Pines, where 1,159 of its 1,769 seats are empty. With enrollment of 35% of capacity, it’s the most underenrolled school in the county.

Anne Skurnick, who taught more than 17 years at Pines Middle before retiring in 2022, said the school was crowded about 15 years ago. But she said it got a reputation for frequent fights and lax discipline. When Renaissance and Franklin Academy opened charter schools nearby in the early 2010s, enrollment began to plummet, she said.

“We’d been told for at least the past seven or eight years if we didn’t find a way to increase enrollment, they were going to shut it down,” she said.

Skurnick said the school has tried in recent years to boost marketing on social media and add new programs to boost enrollment, but she said it may be best to close it.

“I don’t think it’s going to bounce back,” she said. “There are too many other schools out there now. With school choice parents have a wide range of options.”

Pines Middle is close to two other middle schools that are about two-thirds full: New Renaissance Middle in Miramar and Walter C. Young in Pembroke Pines. Since these schools are also considered underenrolled, the district could decide to combine one of them with Pines Middle.

Walter C. Young’s enrollment decline is relatively new. Five years ago, it was 90% full.

Pembroke Pines parent Danilo Gutierrez said his son, now in high school, attended Walter C. Young.

“We’re surprised it is under capacity. The principal is very good and approachable,” Gutierrez said. “The campus is large and fairly well-maintained, with a renovated gym. Parent involvement opportunities are limited but welcomed.”

Gutierrez said he sent his younger children to charter schools operated by the city of Pembroke Pines. The city formed a charter school district in the early 2000s after the school district failed to build facilities quick enough to accommodate massive growth after Hurricane Andrew.

“Our charter school is city run and has great school culture of academic success including Science Olympiad and parent involvement,” Gutierrez said. “In fact, service hours are required from us, and we welcome the open-door opportunities to support our school and our children.”

Along with Pembroke Pines, schools in nearby Miramar could face school closures.

The district has nine underenrolled elementary schools in the city, many of which are only half full. Somerset, now a large national operator of charter schools, opened its first location in Miramar, in the late 1990s and has expanded its presence with multiple high-performing schools in the area.

Other cities with multiple underenrolled schools include Fort Lauderdale (11), Hollywood (7) and Coral Springs (5) and Sunrise (3).

While most of the underenrolled schools are elementary and middle, there are five high schools on the list. Three of those — Stranahan High in Fort Lauderdale, Northeast High in ֱ Park and Blanche Ely High in Pompano Beach — were in such disrepair in 2014 that the school district used photos of the schools to try to sell the public on an $800 million bond for school renovation.

Although renovations have been made to all three schools, and Northeast recently opened a new classroom building, the work faced major delays, which supporters of the schools say contributed to enrollment declines.

Board member Sarah Leonardi, who represents Northeast and Stranahan, aid she does not want to see these schools considered for closure.

“Stranahan was supposed to get a brand-new building decades ago, and they didn’t, and then we used that school as a poster child for the bond,” she said. “If we close Stranahan, you’re punishing the school for our irresponsibility.”

The School Board has discussed the idea of closing schools for years and has always supported the idea. But they’ve hesitated whenever specific schools get named, as it often creates anger in the local communities.

In 2020, the School Board discussed in a workshop closing or merging underenrolled schools without naming any schools.

When the the South Florida ֱ printed a list of the schools that met the criteria cited in the meeting, many communities voiced alarm, prompting then-Superintendent Robert Runcie to issue a statement saying there were no plans to close any schools anytime soon.

Alston asked Licata at a Jan. 23 meeting to publish a list of underenrolled schools, prompting the superintendent to respond, “there is no list.”

Licata later clarified that he thought he was being asked for a list of schools the district may close, which he said won’t be compiled until after the district gets community input.

“There is a reason I have been pushing consistently to display the full list of underenrolled schools, the criteria the superintendent will use to make a recommendations on closings,” Alston told the ֱ. “My overall belief is that the Broward School District is too large with declining enrollment and increasing expenses by board members with no fiscal restraint. It’s not sustainable.”

The district posted the list a few days later on its in a spot where readers have to navigate through multiple links to find it. The document includes language stressing that this is not a list of schools that will be closed.

“It is very important to note that the attached report does not in any way constitute a list of schools identified for repurposing or consolidation, and does not imply any change or action on the part of the School Board is required to remedy underutilization,” a note on the report reads.

In an interview the ֱ, Licata acknowledged the difficulty the district has in identifying specific schools for closure.

“It always seems distant till it comes to your backyard,” he said.

Licata said the district will have to consider what’s best for the whole county, even if some communities object to closing or dramatically changing schools.

“For us to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and trust, we’ve got to look at the big picture,” he said. “But this is hard. That’s why many superintendents and School Boards don’t do this.”

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