It’s the week of standardized testing required by the Florida Department of Education when I arrive on campus. The balance of the 450 or so students and their teachers are quietly focused. Even when you pass them in the halls, they are polite – but they walk with the determination you see when stress hangs in the air.
As anyone younger than 45 can tell you, standardized testing will do that to your psyche.
The sun is shining and warm – but not as warm as it is further inland. At least half of the students wear sweaters to keep them warm in the cool buildings; they keep them on as they move in the outdoor courtyard between classes.
I meet Principal Christine Cruickshank and Board Member Heidi LoCicero at the entrance to the large building which serves as the campus headquarters – and houses the overwhelming majority of the students in class. Four modular buildings are at the back of the school, next to a tall purple structure three or four stories high. The purple color comes from construction wrap, which makes it obvious – this is the school’s new building. The construction promises a short stay to the modular buildings. “I wanted to put fins on the top of the buildings,” LoCicero says with an easygoing laugh, “but the construction superintendent said it would be a waste of money, because they won’t be here for that long.”
The tour of the building starts in the internal courtyard – like most schools nowadays – it has significant amounts of security – including airlock-style entrances, a School Resource Officer, and an ID scan. Getting to the interior courtyard requires passage of all three. Inside the old Lutheran Church’s baptismal font has a lifesize replica of a shark named ‘Bruce,’ Cruickshank tells me.
Evidence of hijinks from the graduating seniors – hundreds of black and white photocopied photos of Cruickshank, hundreds of popped balloons, and more than one roll of toilet paper in a tree grace the campus.
It’s all evidence of the close-knit nature of a small school; Cruickshank says, “I was in big schools for many, many years. Not in this area,” she added, “When I first moved to this area, I was at a smaller school, which was the Collegiate High School. I was there for 13 years, and that was when I saw the value of a smaller school.” Her previous school in Central Florida had more than 1,800 kids. She believes this smaller atmosphere makes a difference for students. “When you get into a smaller school setting, you know your kids. We can tell if they are having a bad day. And they are not afraid to ask for help. I don’t think I could ever go back to a big school.”
The students have many opportunities they might not be able to have in the larger public schools in the area – including a chance to play varsity sports, act in plays, and more. “It amazes me to see the kids blossom,” LoCicero says, “They come here with one thing in mind – just get through high school. But suddenly, they decide to do drama. [they say] ‘I’m gonna try out for lacrosse because it’s a brand new team, it isn’t a team where kids have been playing all these years together.” Cruickshank added, “You see the kids get to make a name for themselves in a different way than you would at a larger school. And to watch it from year one to year two, especially in athletics this year.”
The school is full service, and includes a multipurpose room, also used as a cafeteria, classrooms, and an open meeting space that still has the sturdy wooden pews of the Lutheran Church.
Roughly 80% of the school’s student population (About 450 students – though they expect some 600 for the ’23-’24 school year) lives in Destin or the Destin area. In that order, the rest of the student body comes from Fort Walton Beach, Niceville, and South Walton County.
Parents and students have publicly discussed their concerns for the school’s finances. Others noted that the school is still waiting for its full credentials (which it says it will receive in June of 2023 when the next biannual accreditation board meeting will occur).
But the fears come along with starting and participating in a new venture – especially as something as significant as a school.
So, after the school tour, I got in touch with Kelly Goddin, the Director of Accounting at School Financial Services (SFS). SFS is the independent entity that audits Destin High School’s books and is based in Bonifay, Florida. In total, the outfit supports about 30 charter schools in Florida.
She gave me access to the school’s financials, which you can see here. You’ll notice (if you are a balance sheet person, which I am not) that they don’t include permanent assets like buildings, books or other capital assets. That is because “Charter schools report monthly financials using the governmental model of accounting,” according to Goddin. This form of accounting “excludes capital assets from the balance sheet but rather records them as an expense in the period incurred.” This form of accounting means big purchases like school buildings would show up as a massive expense in one month (or multiple months if they are paid over some time) and won’t be on the books for the latest month.
“As a two-year [old] charter school, we are not seeing anything unexpected with DHS financially. With what we are seeing, their future is financially promising,” Goddin told me.
As for the two-million-dollar deficit for the most recent school year – she noted the school’s expenses had “just outpaced revenue received to date. However, they have received significant increases in their monthly FEFP (Florida Education Finance Program) Funding. That money is allocated via a complicated formula that supports everything from educational material to support for Exceptional Student Education (ESE) which helps children with special needs. The majority of the money for the school comes from FEFP funding, which Goddin says is “very secure, as it is state-funded.”
As a meticulous fan of all things lacrosse – I had to check Destin’s record his year. the first-year squad finished the year 2-8 and took some drubbings from Niceville, who made it deep into this year’s postseason, South Walton and Pensacola Catholic.
But they performed well – insanely well – against good competition, dropping a close 13-10 contest to perennial powerhouse Gulf Breeze. They also took on a Navarre team with a much deeper bench than them and lost by five.
A young team that took a lot of lumps – and maybe has plenty of upside.
The team may serve as a metaphor for the school it represents.
We’ll have to wait and see.