Managing Fast Growth and Crowded Schools:
Florida School Concurrency from Voluntary to Mandatory

by Efraim Ben-Zadok

U.S. planners learned many lessons from Florida's experience in managing fast growth from 11 million people in 1985 to 17 million in 2005. Perhaps the most interesting lesson was in concurrency management. Concurrency is Florida's innovative growth management requirement for balancing development with adequate public facilities.

A quick glance at relevant statistics shows that the absence of a mandatory school concurrency requirement from kindergarten through 12th grade led to highly crowded classrooms in Florida. In 2004, the state had 2.6 million public school students and the highest average enrollment nationwide — 654 students per elementary and 1,038 per middle school. Nevada, for example, averaged 572 students per elementary and 1,012 per middle school, while California averaged 560 and 905 respectively. In 2004 Florida also had an average of 1,548 students per public high school, twice the national average of 758.


In 1985, the Florida legislature enacted the Growth Management Act (GMA) (Florida Statutes, Chapter 163). In 1986, it added the "Glitch Bill" amendment and also approved Rule 9J-5 (Florida Administrative Code, Chapter 9J-5) including the minimum criteria to implement the GMA. The Florida Department of Community Affairs (DCA) then began to review the compliance of all local comprehensive plans with 9J-5. By the time the state review process was completed in 1993 with plan approvals for 459 local governments, Florida had emerged as a national leader in state-growth management.

Concurrency was a critical element of the state review process and the heart of the GMA. Public facilities and services to support development had to be available concurrent with the impact of that development. Six public facilities were subjected to the concurrency requirement: roads, sanitary sewer, solid waste, drainage, potable water, and recreation and open space. Every local comprehensive plan had to include a capital improvement program describing the location of these facilities to support development and their minimum level-of-service (LOS) standards to accommodate projected growth.

The concurrency requirement of the GMA had enormous power to control the location and timing of future developments by denying permits for those that could bring down the LOS for public facilities below minimum standards. The availability of adequate facilities became a condition for new project approvals. Localities and developers had to guarantee facilities in advance, concurrent with development impacts (rather than during development). Concurrency was an original approach for land-use planning and development in the United States.

Of all required public facilities, roads have emerged as the largest, most costly and difficult facility to implement. Public health, law enforcement, and fire protection were not required by the GMA. But the toughest issue was the omission of schools from the list of required facilities. As a result, public school construction lagged behind growth in Florida communities. School concurrency then became a huge controversial issue, loaded with economic and political interests.

From legislation in the mid-1980s and throughout the first decade of implementation, various stakeholders fought over school concurrency in Florida. Middle-class families and environmentalists pushed their local governments and school boards to control development and mandate school concurrency. Developers, real estate agents, and businesses often encountered these local efforts and further resisted statewide motions to include schools as a required facility in the GMA and 9J-5. But the tension between demands for quality infrastructure and environment-versus-development interests only partly explains the school concurrency controversy.

Local governments and school boards tended to support school concurrency, albeit with reluctance to increase property taxes to pay for school construction. At the same time, localities did not want to stop growth and lose potential tax bases and new jobs. At the state level, the legislature traditionally avoided taxing residents and raising property taxes. Despite heavy pressure to provide infrastructure and services, Florida remains one of eight states without an individual income tax, and its 6 percent sales tax is targeted at tourists. But expenditures for planning, construction, and maintenance of new schools — the largest items in state and local education budgets — are especially high in a fast-growth state such as Florida.

Differences between Florida local governments and the school boards added considerably to the school concurrency problem. Florida contains 67 counties, 475 cities, and 67 school districts. Each county shares the same jurisdiction with its counterpart school district, usually administered by an appointed school superintendent. But county commissions and school boards are two independent entities. Each is elected separately and has its own state-delegated responsibility and taxing authority. The county commission has to deal with property rights. The school board has to comply with constitutional requirements for a uniform public school system.

The Florida school concurrency controversy was a hot-button issue through the mid-1990s. Even growth management supporters in the state legislature avoided conflict around the issue. They believed a showdown around school construction would bring multiple lawsuits from home builders and mounting opposition to the GMA. The political upshot was that school concurrency was practically tabled by the legislature and had remained a voluntary local option.


In 1995 the status quo concerning school concurrency began to crack. The Florida legislature instructed local governments wishing to establish school concurrency to coordinate the location of new schools and LOS standards with their school districts. In 1998 the legislature required local comprehensive plans to encourage the location of schools close to residential areas and other facilities such as libraries and parks. Local plans were required to demonstrate a coordination element with the five-year school district programs including feasible capital improvement planning to resolve school overcrowding.

Nevertheless, the GMA's list of mandatory facilities subjected to concurrency remained intact. Localities could choose whether to adopt school concurrency. In relatively small counties and cities, concurrency management suffered a lack of funding and professional staff. Fast-growing, large urban counties with well-staffed management, however, began to experiment with the concurrency option and suffered major setbacks.

The biggest setback occurred in Broward County. With a growing population of 1.5 million (1998), Broward had the largest deficit in school construction funds. Local efforts to draw school concurrency rules were challenged repeatedly by home builders. The county also faced numerous objections to local concurrency practices from the Department of Community Affairs. Like other urban counties, Broward was frustrated by a coalition of developers and state legislators who tried to eliminate impact fees -- the fees that help pay for new school construction. After years of uphill battles, Broward simply could not overcome the resistance of builders, real estate agents, state administrators, and politicians. In 1999 the county halted efforts to mandate school concurrency.

School concurrency advocates still made advances in two large urban counties. Palm Beach County, with a population of 1 million people, began implementation in the late 1990s. It ultimately became the only locality to successfully adopt school concurrency. In Orange County, with almost 1 million people in 2000, landowner Betty Jean Mann sued the county commission headed by Mel Martinez (who was later elected to the U.S. Senate) for denying a rezoning of land for new development that would have caused overcrowded schools. In a landmark 2003 rule, the Florida Supreme Court declined to accept jurisdiction. The court thus enabled other localities to follow Orange County's practice and review school capacities for future land use and zoning changes that involve additional residential units.

In another landmark decision, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a proposal to cap class size in public schools was eligible to go before the voters on the November 2002 ballot. The proposal called for a reduction in the number of children in each classroom by 2010. Florida voters approved this constitutional amendment on schools, but even supporters had no idea how the state would raise the billions of dollars the amendment's implementation was expected to cost.

Meanwhile, the state legislature continued to make progress on school concurrency. In 2002 it required all local governments and their school districts to sign a general agreement to share information and coordinate the planning of residential developments and school facilities regarding site, capacity, and enrollment. Signing the new law at Hialeah High School near Miami, Gov. Jeb Bush said: "Growth is good, but growth needs to be coordinated." Built for 800 students, Hialeah High School already had 1,700 students and 36 portable classrooms. It was apparent that more comprehensive and detailed legislation was required to resolve this and numerous other school crowding problems all over the state.

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