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Charter school funding tops budget talks

By Staff | Aug 10, 2017

With a constitutional challenge putting additional revenue in limbo, funding for the city of Cape Coral’s charter school system drew much of the discussion at Thursday’s budget workshop.

The Cape Coral City Council and Budget Review Committee got together for the second time this week to hold a joint discussion on the proposed FY 2018 city budget.

Thursday’s session included the possibility of the municipal charter school system getting a subsidy, garnering much of the attention.

The city has proposed a $205,872,108 budget. That’s a decrease from the $211.26 million amended budget from last year, but an increase of $10.2 million more than the budget Council originally approved.

The charter schools asked for about $311,000 next year since it is not known yet when – or even if – the city system will get money from the School District of Lee County as required by recently passed state legislation.

The request was met with a lot of argument on both sides and took up a large portion of the more than four-hour session.

Several major issues arose as interium School Superintendent Jacque Collins discussed her budget, including how the city was executing its lease arrangement with the schools and the methodology used to pay city employees who provide services for the system.

The existing lease covers only the walls and ceilings, and roof.

Anything else, such as the air conditioning units, are the responsibility of the charter schools.

The current methodology in paying those who do work for the schools pays for not only the service, but also the insurance, administrative and any other ancillary costs, which can run up the bill in a hurry.

The issue of whether the city should give money to the Charter School Authority produced a mixed reaction.

“The city shouldn’t have to use General Fund money when the schools have the reserves to cover it,” city Councilmember Marilyn Stout said. “We told the taxpayers when we started this they wouldn’t have to pay for it.”

Councilmember Richard Leon said the Council should give it to them while having City Manager John Szerlag look at the lease and methodology, which Leon maintained is all wrong.

City departments don’t charge other department for benefits, he said adding … “And few leases do what we do,” Leon said. “Let’s charge them in the budget.”

Councilmember John Carioscia brought up an old proposal he presented during a joint meeting in May -?dissolving the authority’s board and putting the City Council in charge.

“Cape Coral residents are paying for Lee County schools, now they’re paying for the charter schools. I won’t support that. If I have to take the political heat, I want to be part of the political process,” Carioscia said.

Councilmember Rana Erbrick wasn’t interested in running a school system since Council is not in the school business, but agreed the lease and methodology do need to be looked at.

Part of the funding controversy is centered around legislation signed by Gov. Rick Scott that requires school districts to share a portion of funding that now may be wholly retained, or shared, at a school district’s discretion.

Under the new law, the Lee County School District would have to pay the charter schools anywhere from $750,000 to $2 million.

It isn’t known exactly how much the charter school system would get, exactly when, or even if the schools will get the funds at all. The Lee County school system is joining several others in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law.

The Cape’s joint session Thursday also discussed the possibly bringing more money to economic development, which proponents of the measure say has brought in a large influx of business to the city over the last five years.

Stout said the department has to make sure it has what it needs to continue to do the job.

There also was discussion on whether to give the city’s youth council a $25,000 budget.

Councilmember Rick Williams, who brought the advisory panel to fruition, justified the funding, saying it would help in the mission of teaching the students how local government works.

The little amount of work the new youth board has done to date was among the reasons some opposed it.

Highlights of the proposed budget include the fourth millage reduction in five years, a .25 decrease which would bring the property tax rate down to 6.50, down 18 percent from 2013. The rollback rate -?what is needed to keep revenue flat – is 6.3340.

Ad valorem revenue will be $82.3 million; the public service tax imposed by the city on electric bills will bring in $7.3 million; while the 59 percent “recovery” fire assessment will bring in another $24 million.

The fund reserve will add another $8 million.