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Lee District to join HB 7069 lawsuit

By Staff | Jul 27, 2017

The Lee County School District will join a lawsuit challenging the state’s new education bill.

On Tuesday, the Lee County School Board voted 6-0 to participate as a plaintiff in litigation that challenges the constitutionally of House Bill 7069, which Gov. Rick Scott signed on June 15.

School board attorney Keith Martin recommended the action.

“The bill contains multiple provisions that usurp the authority of local school boards in violation of the Florida Constitution,” he wrote. “The lawsuit would seek a declaratory judgement that the bill is unconstitutional, and a court order enjoining its enforcement.”

The lawsuit began with the school boards in Broward and St. Lucie counties.

“At least two Florida School boards have voted to file suit to challenge the bill and have invited other Florida School Boards to join as plaintiffs in the litigation,” Martin wrote.

The school boards in Bay and Volusia counties also voted on Tuesday to join the lawsuit.

Martin explained in his recommendation that the litigation costs would be shared among the plaintiff school districts. He estimated that the cost for the Lee County School District would be $25,000.

The $419 million K-12 public schools bill includes language that requires school districts to share their local capital funding with district charter schools, like the city’s Cape Coral Charter School Authority. The bill, however, does allow for deductions by the district prior to the sharing of property tax revenue.

Interim Superintendent Jacquelin Collins, with the Cape charter system, voiced frustration with the school board on Thursday. She explained that she is upset that the district has joined the lawsuit.

“I understand that it’s always difficult to work with less funding, and there’s just never enough funding for education to begin with,” she said. “But I’m against it, in the sense, that my students here need the same amount of funding like any public school system.”

She pointed out that education is expensive, especially when done correctly.

“The charter schools have always functioned on less funding than a regular public school system,” Collins said, adding that the city’s system has done well so far with what it has had, but more is needed. “We need the extra funding to survive, to provide an equal educational opportunity to our students.”

She noted that charter school families pay property taxes, too.

“Our families pay into this local ad valorem tax,” Collins said. “We just want what’s equal.”

Under the previous law, school districts could decide if and how much of their funding to share with their charter schools. Lee County was one of the school districts that chose not to share its funds.

According to School Board Member Steven Teuber, who represents part of the Cape, even fellow School Board Member Jane Kuckel – absent from Tuesday’s meeting – was in favor of the action.

“This board is unequivocal in supporting the superintendent in moving forward with this,” he said of the lawsuit on Thursday. “We feel the taxpayers and our constituents have to be enlightened as far as what the Legislature did, as far as this particular bill.”

Teuber continued that unconstitutional moves were made to pass the bill.

“This is an appropriations bill that had 55 separate topics in the bill,” he said, adding that most died or never even made it to the Senate or House floor. “The Constitution requires one bill, one topic.”

As for the charter funding language, Teuber said the Cape system is different than most.

“Ninety-eight percent of our charter schools (in Florida) are non-profits owned by for-profits,” he said, noting that most of the funding would go to them. “We cannot let tax dollars go to private entities.”

Teuber pointed out that the district is not against sharing.

“We’ve always supported the charter system,” he said. “The only reason we’re fighting this is we don’t have enough to share. We have barely enough money to keep our buildings maintained, our buses maintained.”

Teuber added that a better equation for dividing up the funds is needed.

“We’re not opposed to a formula, but we need a funding formula where we’re fully met,” he said referring to the school district and its associated costs.

Collins acknowledged that there is a difference between charter schools statewide.

“We’re not-for-profit, we’re a municipal charter school,” she said. “We’re not a corporation.”

Collins said she wished that the bill’s language distinguished between the two.

“I don’t think there would be as much resistance to this bill if they did that,” she 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.