Friday, May 25, 2018
Education

Democrats: Traditional public schools are shortchanged as construction funding flows to charters

TAMPA — Despite the prospect of renewed construction money for traditional public schools, two Democratic leaders insist the state is still giving too generously to charters.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and state Rep. Mark Danish, both Democrats, stated their case Monday in front of South Tampa's Wilson Middle School.

"We're here today to report a theft," Castor said. "There has been a theft of tax dollars from our public schools."

Wilson, which opened in 1915, is listed on the district's capital improvement plan for a $3.59-million renovation in the 2014-2015 school year.

But, the plan goes on to say, that project is unfunded. So are projects at 16 other Hillsborough County schools, which add up to $117-million in needs over the next five years.

Since 2011 the state has used money from its Public Education Capital Outlay fund, known as PECO, for charter schools far more than traditional, district-operated schools. Although independently operated, charters get their funding from the state.

In some years, district-run schools got nothing from the fund while charters received as much as $91-million. Charter advocates say that funding falls short, and that school choice could be threatened if an ample source of money cannot be found for the long term.

Budgets submitted this year by the Florida Senate and House, as well as Gov. Rick Scott, provide more of a balance, with district-run schools receiving between $40-million and $80-million while charters get between $50-million and $100-million.

But those formulas still shortchange the district-run schools, which serve far more children, said Danish, a former teacher.

"While we let our public school buildings decay, the charter schools can play," he said, repeating a remark he made April 3 on the House floor. "It's a very unfair situation."

Lawmakers also are grappling with proposals that would prevent PECO from drying up. The funding currently comes from a disappearing tax on cable TV and land-line telephones. One bill under consideration would shift revenue from an existing tax on commercial energy consumption to the PECO fund. But Scott's office has expressed concerns with the proposal, saying it would limit future flexibility.

Sen. John Legg, a Lutz Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, pointed out that PECO is not the only source of funding for construction projects. Schools also benefit from local capital outlay dollars that are raised through property taxes.

Broken down by student, he said, those funds amount to $548 per traditional student in Hillsborough and $494 in Pasco for the current school year. Both numbers are higher than the per-student amounts the charters got from PECO, calculated at $462 in Hillsborough and $430 in Pasco.

Districts get to keep those dollars even as students move to charter schools, he said. "So the argument that they are losing money is wrong. They are keeping that money."

However, that pot of money has dwindled too. Pinellas County has struggled to pay for school renovations as property values have gone down and the state has limited how much districts can tax to collect school construction dollars. The district's budget for such projects has gone down from about $150 million a year to $87 million.

The district had to save for years before starting its latest project, the reconstruction of Largo High School, said Michael Bessette, director of operations for Pinellas Schools. The new campus will cost upward of $50 million.

Asked if her message Monday was intended to counteract the political benefits Scott is trying to reap with this year's increased level of education funding, Castor said, "Sure, everything is political."

But, she said, she is concerned more as a parent of two children, one in public and the other in private school.

Linda Kearschner, one of two PTA leaders who appeared with Castor and Danish, said, "PTA is a nonpartisan organization. We're parents from across the state who are simply concerned about the education of each and every child."

That includes children in charter schools, she said. But, she added, "the fact of the matter is, the schools that are traditional public environments have been left out of the funding equation."

Times Staff Writer Lisa Gartner and Kathleen McGrory of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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