The pressing impact of population growth on Marion County schools

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Posted May 16, 2022 | By Caroline Brauchler
caroline@ocalagazette.com

The Marion County Public School Board meets at the MTI auditorium in Ocala on Tuesday, April 26, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

A report being presented in an administrative work session to the school board on Thursday projects the looming overcapacity of schools, and the data is much more dire than ever before.

The current enrollment utilization across the entire county is 93%, with 42,087 students enrolled across all grade levels and a maximum seat capacity of 45,347, according to Marion County Public Schools. That leaves only 3,260 seats available — about the size of Forest High School’s football stadium.

Board Member Allison Campbell said this data is unprecedented and far outnumbers the data that the school board was expecting to see. Campbell has been initiating conversations about school capacity and requesting this information prior to this report, and said she glad to see this pressing issue addressed.

“I’m grateful that all the questions I’ve had are starting to be validated by numbers,” Campbell said. “We’re starting to see really concrete evidence.”

Out of that 93% total utilization, high schools are by far the most overcrowded, and sit at 98% utilization with 12,636 seats out of the 12,891-seat capacity filled, according to MCPS.

“The previous board conversations we have had have always told us that we were under 90% utilization,” Campbell said.

Marion County is growing fast, and according to the 2021 US Census the population has increased by 10,007 in two years, 1,334 of which are school aged children. The trouble is that schools just don’t have the space, and many are reaching close to capacity much quicker than the school board and commissioners expected.

“Growth has accelerated almost exponentially,” said Board Member Nancy Thrower. “We have a different segment of the age groups in our population that are moving into Ocala. It seems to be a younger demographic.”

The most troubling of the data has arisen lies in the southwest area of Marion County, where the schools have now reached 99% capacity. West Port High School has faced the most overcrowding in this area, and is now at 112% capacity, according to MCPS.

“It’s clear that we have localized overcrowding, especially in our southern end of the county,” Thrower said. “While portables are not optimal, they certainly have gotten the job done over the years. But we truly need a shift in how capacity is calculated by the state and to be able to build new schools.”

‘Portables’ are just one of several short-term facility planning efforts being implemented in the county to lessen the strain of capacity in classrooms, by hosting classes in these portable modular classroom buildings.

Marion County has 70 documented portable classrooms in comparison to its 2,355 permanent classrooms, according to the Florida Inventory of School Houses data collected in Dec. 2021. That number documented could differ based on a number of factors, according to Campbell.

“I don’t know if that’s the actual number, or if it’s only the numbers that are showing up on the report,” Campbell said. “After 20 years, the portable is essentially considered decommissioned. It comes off the report, but we may still use that portable.”

Campbell said that there needs to be a stress placed on long-term solutions, and that the only way for schools to keep up with the growing population of school-aged children is to build new schools, which is a time and monetarily intensive undertaking.

“We do have the land…and perhaps with these numbers if in fact we’re able to validate it with the state of Florida that might open up some funding opportunities for us,” Campbell said.

Funding for long-term facility planning cannot come soon enough, because MCPS’ future projections only show that the population of Ocala will continue to grow. By 2032 the district enrollment is forecasted to reach 50,715, with a utilization of up to 120% in some areas.

“We’ll do whatever we’re able to do to relieve the localized overcrowding in the near term. In the long term there’s definitely a need for new schools,” Thrower said. “On paper it looks like we have capacity, but no one thinks that it’s a good idea or sensible to bus kids or ask families to drive kids from the south end of the county to the north end of the county where we do have capacity.”

Dunnellon Middle School and Fort McCoy School are 45 miles apart—the commute between the two would take at more than an hour for any parent or school bus driver to make.

“There’s definitely some systems change that needs to happen in terms of calculations for school attendance,” Thrower said. “That’s only going to happen with all of us working together.”

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You can tune in to watch the administrative work session this Thursday, May 19 at 9:00 a.m. by visiting:  https://www.youtube.com/user/MCPSMedia