Thursday, September 20, 2018

Florida Ethics Commission removes suggestion that charter schools are not public agencies

The Florida Commission on Ethics has backtracked on the notion that the state's charter schools are anything but public agencies.

The commission issued an advisory opinion in December that removed language from an earlier version that suggested charters are "more similar to business entities," and its officials were not subject to the same state standards as those of traditional district schools.

The draft opinion did not have support of a majority on the commission, which approved the revised version at its December 8 session.

The issue related to Lake Wales lawyer Robin Gibson, who sits on the City Council and is legal counsel to the city's charter school system. He asked for clarification on whether he had a conflict of interest in participating in a land deal between the two agencies.

[Related coverage: Is a Florida charter school a public school, or not?]

In making its initial argument, the commission offered that the charters should be viewed as business entities in reaching a determination.

In the new version, that language is gone.

Instead, the commission acknowledged Gibson's view, which connects with the state's official stance, that charter schools are public schools. However, the commission continued, that distinction would be irrelevant if money were to change hands as part of the land deal.

"Even were we to consider a charter school to be an 'agency,' the first part of Section 112.313(7)(a) still would apply, as the statute prohibits a public officer from holding any employment or contractual relationship 'with any business entity or any agency' subject to the regulation of, or doing business with, the public officer's own agency," the opinion stated.

If the land agreement were a donation, the commission wrote, the conflict would not come into play: "In previous opinions, we have found a donation of property does not rise to the level of 'doing business' because there is no exchange of consideration."

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