June 27, 2023

Funding and the Future of Public School Facilities in Florida: Insights from Experts in School Planning

Public schools play a major role in any community. Beyond serving as the primary community educator, school facilities also serve as election polling places, community meeting locations, holiday marketplaces, youth group fundraising events, and event/athletic centers. Families searching for housing consider the school attendance zone as a major factor in their search. 

Over the next few months, we’d like to give you a better understanding of how public school facilities in Florida are funded and the factors that go into determining school capacity and construction. Our team, including Kathie Ebaugh, AICP, and John Gilreath, GISP, has decades of combined experience and a deep understanding of school capacity, concurrency, enrollment projections, facility utilization, and demographic trends. 

As experts in the school planning field, here are some common questions we hear through our interactions with communities across Florida. 

How Are School Improvements and Construction Funded?

Public school districts in Florida are separate government agencies from local municipalities and counties, but the school districts still rely on property taxes collected by local governments as one of their main sources of funding. 

School districts levy property taxes within their jurisdiction to fund various needs, including facility-related expenses. The amount of local funding available for facilities can vary depending on the property tax base and the district’s revenue-raising capacity.  In addition to the annual millage rate on a property’s assessed value, school districts have passed sales tax surcharges to augment the funding of facility improvements.

For example, in recent years, Alachua County Public School’s ½-cent Facilities Funding Initiative has seen the major renovation and reconstruction of Idylwild Elementary, Metcalfe Elementary, and Bishop Middle School. 

JBPro is proudly serving as the civil engineer for the current reconstruction of Westwood Middle School and the upcoming renovation of Littlewood Middle School.

For major construction, such as a new school, the school district may receive capital outlay funds that are specifically dedicated to new construction, major renovations, or the purchase of new equipment/technology. The allocation of capital outlay funds is determined by the age/condition of existing facilities, projected enrollment, and the district’s own capital improvement plan. It is important to note that new public schools in Florida cannot be built without the district providing proof of enrollment exceeding capacity across the entire district. 

The state government allocates funds to school districts through the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP), which is the primary funding mechanism for public schools in the state. These funds are intended to cover various aspects of education, including facility-related expenses. FEFP typically covers the maintenance and repairs for existing facilities and some minor construction. The program allocates funding based on student enrollment, district needs, and local property values.

The final source of regular funding for Florida public school facilities is the Public Education Capital Outlay funds. These funds are derived from various sources, such as landline phone taxes, gross receipts taxes, utility taxes, and lottery proceeds. PECO funds are typically used for capital projects, including the construction of new schools, the renovation of existing buildings, and the purchase of equipment and technology. Changes in PECO funds distribution can be impacted by economic downturns that can affect tax revenues targeted for education. 

What Is FES and How Does It Affect Public School Attendance and Funding?

The Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) program is an education initiative signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis in 2019. The FES program offers scholarships to eligible students, allowing them to attend private schools or transfer to other public schools outside their assigned district. 

Eligibility requirements vary by the type of scholarship awarded through the program. Students who enter into the scholarship program may choose to attend a school outside of the public school district which will then remove the annual FEFP funding allocation for that student from the district’s budget. 

Further information on these scholarships and the FES program is available here: https://www.stepupforstudents.org/

In addition to private school options, the FES program also allows eligible students to transfer to other public schools outside their assigned district. This option expands the choices available to families who seek alternatives within the public education system. 

Families may find specific school capacity or grade-level requirements within the FES program as well. For example, programs might be limited to students entering kindergarten or first grade, or allow student transfers to schools with a certain capacity limit. The specific grade-level eligibility criteria may vary, and it is essential to consult your specific school district for precise details. Locally in Alachua County, the Office of Zoning and Student Assignment assigns school attendance, adheres to school board policy, and facilitates assignment exceptions: https://www.sbac.edu/domain/92

Families interested in participating in the FES program must apply through a designated application process. Enrollment availability, application deadlines, and specific procedures may vary and are typically managed by the Florida Department of Education or the organization responsible for administering the program.

Will My School Zone Change in the Future?

In all likelihood – yes!

While the school attendance zone is a main factor in many families’ decision to buy a home, school attendance zones can change regularly. To address growth in a community, school planning staff are constantly monitoring school capacity and residential development growth to determine the need for rezoning. In many communities, such as Orange County, school attendance zones are shifted annually.

Dozens of factors can affect the need for rezoning. An underfilled school can cost the school district valuable funding to maintain the basic operational costs of heating, cooling, and repairing a school facility. Whereas overcrowded schools struggle with a lack of space, creating drastic effects on school programming and maintenance. But it may not be as simple as adding more classrooms.

The State of Florida has rules that cover how a school district can use its budget to construct a new building. Adding classroom space to accommodate more students can result in an overload of the core spaces in a school such as restrooms, cafeterias, media centers, and recess areas. With construction costs increasing dramatically over the past decade, building these new spaces is exceedingly expensive. 

Redrawing school attendance zones is one of the ways that counties efficiently utilize existing space and relieve overcrowding. Oftentimes, other changes may be made to shift populations and prioritize walkable neighborhood schools including updates to programmatic offerings such as magnet schools or school bus routes. 

School Planning and Your Family’s Future

JBPro’s passion for school planning stems from our desire to see communities flourish and we know school rezonings are one of the most contentious issues communities face. We encourage citizens to understand the impetus behind school attendance rezoning as well as the longer-term planning efforts that inform the school districts of their capacity needs. Our next blog will focus on school concurrency and how school districts across Florida monitor growth in their communities to plan for future school capacity needs. 

We collaborate with local planners throughout the state of Florida to develop solutions to ensure efficient resource allocation, space utilization, and effective student distribution. Our data-driven approach to the planning of Florida schools informs our public school site designs and land surveying services. Contact our team at JBPro, where data meets innovation, to support K-12 school planning.