Enrollment increases mean more funding -- and class size penalties -- for Manatee schools

MANATEE -- Every year it's a guessing game.

A 10-day count taken Tuesday by the Manatee County school district indicates that enrollment increases from last year remain at about 875 students. Already, the district has shuffled class schedules and moved teachers around in the hopes of meeting class size requirements to avoid penalties from the state.

They already look inevitable.

"We're going to be over in some classes and we are going to have to take the penalty," district Chief Financial Officer Michael Boyer said.

Boyer said the decision to hire more teachers to accommodate the growth would be "fiscally irresponsible."

"It's a $675 penalty (per student) versus a ... salary," Boyer said. "You have to weigh that out."

Every year, the district tries to manipulate classroom size in order to avoid penalties. But it can only control so much, Boyer said. Because of school choice, the district can't move students to different schools. The result? One school might have 10 classes exceeding classroom limits. Another might have 10 classes under. And there's nothing the district can do.

The Class Size Amendment, established in 2002, determines the number of students allowed in a classroom based on grade level.

Children of migrant workers affect counts, too, because they enroll in school later than many of their classmates, making predicting -- and controlling -- classroom size difficult.

Manatee County paid between $75,000 and $125,000 to the state in penalties last year. In 2010, they paid more than $60,000.

"If you could put the teachers and students exactly where you want, you could pretty much solve the problem," Boyer said. "But because of school choice, you have to let the cards fall."

For now, enrollment is on track to meet this year's projection of 1,000 new students to the district, which would bring enrollment to more than 45,000 students.

And that's not a bad thing.

"We're right on the money," said Danny Lundeen, district supervisor of student demographics, projections and assignment. "Everything appears to be in line."

Enrollment increases guarantee more funding from the state and indicate the economy is improving. Manatee County receives about $6,400 per student.

Still, Lundeen said the district remains cautious, reminiscent of the 2006-07 school year when early counts looked good for the district, before it lost about 150 students in the middle of the year.

So, Lundeen said, the district has held off on hiring teachers they're not sure that they'll need even as they hope that enrollment continues to increase through October, when the state makes official counts to determine funding.

Sixty to 70 percent of the growth occurred in charter schools this year, though they attracted students from a much more widespread area than the district had originally thought.

"We were uncertain that the charter schools were going to pick up as many kids as they did," Lundeen said. "But we've got a pretty good picture now."

Understanding that bigger picture is key to striking a balance between serving students and saving money for the district, Boyer said.

"We're going to minimize over-hiring and we're going to minimize the penalty," Boyer said. "But not at the cost of the students."

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.