In its early life, Camelot Elementary was Central Florida's poster child for runaway school growth.
At its most crowded, the east Orange school had more than 1,320 students on a campus built for 740 and needed 45 portable classrooms to accommodate everyone.
By 2005, portables had chewed up the basketball court, taken over the lawn and run right up to the pitcher's mound on the field behind the school.
Today, all but two of the portable classrooms are gone. The ball fields and basketball courts are restored, and the student population is below 700.
Camelot is now a school comfortable in its brick skin. The breathing room is nice. But the familiar warning -- to be careful what you wish for -- has never been more appropriate.
Dizzying population growth in past years often left schools scrambling to find places for the continuing crush of new students. But the money their families spent on everything from houses to cars to sneakers also put money in state coffers.
That, in turn, helped finance public education.
But in the past few years, population growth -- the main engine driving the state's economy -- has stalled. And this year, for the first time since World War II, more people are expected to move out of Florida than move in.
At the same time, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression is shredding school-district budgets, forcing some to close campuses, cut school days and curtail services.
An infusion of nearly $1 billion in federal stimulus money, credited with saving more than 18,000 education jobs in Florida, has helped stave off a deeper crisis. But the state's public schools, on average, started this school year with $418 less per kid than they had at the start of the 2007-08 school year.
State economists predict Florida's budget pain will continue for at least the next three years, with tanking growth drying up billions of dollars in needed revenue. That will hurt all services, including public education.
Schools also will be hurt by the sluggish housing market, which means fewer dollars in property taxes collected for schools, and by the loss of federal money slated to run out next year.
Finally, though enrollment has been dropping for several years -- public schools lost some 40,000 students between 2005 and 2008 -- it might be ticking upward this year. That's because a lot of recession-strapped parents seem to be pulling their children from private schools and enrolling them in public ones, state forecasters say.
'Perfect storm' hitting schools
If enrollment does go up, and a firm tally is expected soon, it will be another budget hit for districts that will have to educate more students with the same pot of money approved by the Florida Legislature last spring.
And already, Florida lags behind most states in public-school funding. Earlier this year, the annual "Quality Counts" report by the Education Week newspaper gave Florida an F on spending.
"This perfect storm is brewing," said Christine Bramuchi, an Orlando mother and a leader in the group Fund Education Now, formed by a trio of local parents during last year's school budget crisis.
In November, Fund Education joined a lawsuit against the state, claiming lawmakers are violating the state constitution by failing to provide an adequate education to Florida students. They cited shrinking state support for public schools, among other deficiencies, as evidence.
"We are on the brink of financial disaster when it comes to funding these schools," added Linda Kobert, another leader in the Fund Education group.
The two Orange County mothers are among a growing group of parents, advocates and educators who argue it is time for Florida to re-think how it finances public education and find a funding mechanism that isn't tied so tightly to how many newcomers are lured here each year.
They're calling for statewide tax reform from Florida lawmakers, arguing that a top-notch education system is the best economic-development medicine for Florida's financial woes.
"I think we're just in this quandary," said Punam Sexana, a mother of four who is working with a newly formed parent organization in Lakeland. "We've got to find a better way."
But there is little appetite among the Republican leadership in the Florida Legislature for more taxes, even as meetings this fall revealed lawmakers would need to come up with $2.6 billion next year just to maintain "critical" needs like education and health care at their current, scaled-back levels.
State Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, chairman of the Senate's education appropriations committee, longs for a return to the high-growth past, when the construction industry was booming, property-tax revenue was flowing and 40,000 new kids a year were flooding into Florida's schools.
"I would hope that the houses in the North would sell and then people would move to Florida," he said. But Wise said he knows an "economy built on spending" has created problems that many did not foresee in the boom years -- and that the growth machine may well have burned itself out, at least temporarily.
Fear of the future
Meanwhile, district administrators look toward the 2010-11 school year with a deep sense of fear.
"A more stable source of revenue is essential," said Bill Vogel, superintendent of Seminole schools. "We understand the challenges the Legislature is facing, but having a high-quality education system is essential to improving our economy."Without changes, administrators say there may be no money to cover the salaries now paid by federal funds, sent as part of Congress' massive economic-recovery law. The budget cuts that parents have already noticed -- requests for basics like copier paper and the loss of some electives -- also could get worse.
"Unfortunately, when growth slows down, our revenue drops off," said Harry Fix, director of growth planning for Lake County schools.
Lake hired Fix five years ago when officials were rushing to find room for all the students moving into the county. Now, with growth slowed, Fix is trying to figure out what Lake's older campuses need. But he sees little way to pay for that to-do list.
At Camelot, the once-crowded Orange school, Principal Janet Medina-Maestre is happy there is now a garden, and plans for a bigger outdoor classroom, in the newly opened space beside the science lab portable.
But budget talks leave her uneasy. Last year, because of spending cuts, her school lost its guidance counselor. This year, Camelot lost its music teacher -- and its music classes.
If things don't change, cuts like Camelot's will force a food fight between Florida schools over a "very small, inadequate pie," said Duval County School Board member W.C. Gentry.
"We made some hurtful cuts," Gentry said. "Now the question becomes, 'What in the hell are we going to cut now?' We're looking at a very, very difficult time this next year. As is every other county in the state."
Leslie Postal can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5273.
Thinking outside the box
A new statewide committee on "Florida's economic commitment to education" pulled together by the Florida School Boards Association wants lawmakers to think outside the growth box. Members are working to define what high-quality schools need and then offer a laundry list of possible revenue sources. Among them:
•A repeal of some sales-tax exemptions, such as those on bottled water.
Collecting sales tax for online purchases
A new sales tax for schools
Off-shore oil drilling
•A revamped corporate tax structure
All the options have critics, but the status quo will not work any longer, said W.C. Gentry, a Duval County School Board member and the chairman of the new committee. "We can't rely on continued growth," he said, noting that Florida never financed its schools all that well even when growth was rampant.