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Charter schools may get additional funding source

By Staff | May 18, 2017

Charter schools in Cape Coral and countywide would receive a portion of the local property tax revenue collected by the Lee County School District if the governor signs a new bill into law.

HB 7069 – a $419 million, 278-page education bill – includes language that would require school districts to share their local capital funding with district charter schools. Part of the 2017-18 budget, the K-12 public schools bill passed both the Senate and House, 20-18 and 73-36 respectively, on May 8.

As of Thursday, the bill nor the budget had been sent to Gov. Rick Scott for signing.

Rep. Dane Eagle, who represents District 77 and the Cape, explained that the current law allows districts to decide if they want to share the funding and how much. Lee County chooses not to.

“It’s up to the discretion of each district,” he said. “We’re asking them to share a portion.”

The bill requires districts to share their discretionary millage, which is up to 1.5 mills.

Eagle cited charter school parents who are paying property taxes to the county.

“Their taxpayer dollars are not going to that child,” he said.

According to the Lee County School District’s FY 2016-17 budget, property taxes were projected to generate approximately $109 million this year. Last fiscal year, about $100 million was brought in.

For the FY 2017-18, property taxes are projected to generate approximately $114 million.

Cape Coral City Councilmember Marilyn Stout, who served on the Cape Coral Charter School Authority, voiced support for the bill’s language requiring sharing of ad valorem tax dollars.

“It’s a fairness issue,” she said. “It really is.”

Stout noted that the current law permits sharing, but does not require it.

“Our citizens, who have their children in the municipal charter schools, they pay that tax,” she said. “The money should follow the child.”

City Councilmember Jessica Cosden, chair for the Cape Coral Charter School Authority, explained that the charter schools receive capital funding from the state, but not like the school district does.

“We provide a public education with less money than district schools,” she said.

According to Eagle, Florida lawmakers have previously allocated capital outlay funds for the charter schools statewide. Line itemed in the budget, this year the state funds were marked at $50 million.

Known as public education capital outlay or PECO dollars, the funds are based on student enrollment numbers, eligibility and more. It is the second largest revenue source for the Cape’s charter system.

According to the budget, the charters received $867,875 in FY 2016-17 and $522,247 in FY 1015-16. The Lee County School District got $1.93 million in FY 2016-17 and $1.28 million in FY 1015-16.

Cosden noted that the sharing of local property taxes would help the charters.

“Any amount that we can get for capital would be helpful and welcome,” she said. “It would be nice, since all of the people in Cape Coral pay those taxes.”

Stout echoed that.

“The fact is that all of the (charter) school buildings are still being paid for, as are the school buses,” she said. “That’s bonded money.”

Stout explained that the additional funds would help pay down that bonded money.

“It would give the charter schools so much money to work with,” she said.

While groups have voiced support for Scott signing the bill, including the Florida Charter School Alliance, Florida Coalition of School Board Members and Foundation for Florida’s Future, many have voiced opposition to it, including the Lee County School Board and Superintendent Greg Adkins.

On Monday, Adkins joined critics around the state – teachers unions and school districts, as well as the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and the Florida School Boards Association – in writing to the governor, urging him to veto HB 7069 or the “K-12 Education Conforming Bill.”

He wrote:

“As you know, this bill was developed as part of the budget conference process; however, most of the provisions in the bill are policy issues that have no connection to the budget. Further, the negotiations on this bill were not conducted in an open and public manner. As a result, the School Board and District staff were unable to provide meaningful comments and suggestions to our legislative delegation about how the policies enacted through this bill would impact the students, taxpayers, and citizens of Lee County.”

“The bill does contain certain policies with which we agree. However, due to the secretive nature of the negotiations, many objectionable policies were also included. All citizens deserve an open government in Florida. Meetings should be conducted in the open and negotiations should be public.”

Adkins pointed to the lack of a “self-enrichment” prohibition in regard to charter schools and capital outlay funding, the “Schools of Hope” provision that steers $140 million in educational funding to charter school companies that agree to turn around low-performing schools, the placing of restrictions on how districts can spend federal Title I dollars and a provision that prohibits future collective bargaining agreements from containing a methodology for automatic renewal of a teacher’s contract.

He continued:

“There are dozens of other unfunded mandates and negative long-term policies in this bill that have been filed previously, over multiple sessions, but failed to gain support for passage. They have appeared in this bill by linking them with the budget outside of the eye of public scrutiny. Please do not let this process succeed. If it does, it will become the norm instead of the exception.”

HB 7069 does allow for deductions prior to the sharing of property tax revenue.

According to Eagle, the law reduces the amount that must be shared with the charters by any annual debt service obligation and any amount of state-level capital outlay received by the charter school.

“We’re asking them to share it after they take out their debt service and whatever the state has paid to the charter,” he said. “Whatever is leftover, we would ask them to help the charter school with that.”

Eagle, who voted in favor of the bill, noted that it is not equal but it is something.

“Competition, I believe, is good for everything,” he said. “Weed out the bad things and the good things rise to the top.”

Eagle added that the end goal is to help Florida’s students.

“We want them to do the best they can,” he said. “The public school and the charter school competing is what will allow that child to receive the best education they can.”

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, District 27, also voted in favor of the bill. She could not be reach for comment on Thursday.

Once Scott receives HB 7069, he has 15 days to sign or veto it. If he does nothing, it becomes law.

Many are predicting that the governor will veto it.

“It’s likely that the governor is going to veto it,” Stout said.