TALLAHASSEE — Florida's charter school law doesn't need fixing, officials from Tampa Bay school districts said Wednesday, speaking out against changes they said would make it easier for private companies to earn profits running public schools.
At issue was a proposed rule change that would expand the definition of "nonprofit" for charters, which use public tax dollars but run independently from districts. The changes were requested by Virginia-based Imagine Schools, the nation's largest commercial charter operator, after several districts questioned whether the company was running schools on a nonprofit basis as required under state law.
District officials said in a conference call with the Department of Education that the proposed rules would make matters worse.
"There's no way this can be policed," said Tom Gonzalez, an attorney for the Hillsborough County School Board, which rejected an Imagine application in December on that basis.
He said the changes could allow a supposedly nonprofit entity to pay themselves, entering real estate contracts with for-profit arms of their own company. "And then charge exorbitant rates to rent that property, and those rents would be paid with tax dollars that our boards are charged to protect."
That's what Pinellas County officials say is happening at the F-rated Imagine charter in St. Petersburg, which owes the company nearly $1 million. The school pays $881,179 a year to lease a half-empty building from Schoolhouse Finance, a for-profit subsidiary of Imagine.
"What are you trying to achieve by coming up with this definition?" asked Pinellas board attorney James Robinson, suggesting that existing laws offered more protection.
Imagine officials didn't participate in the conference call. They earlier embraced the proposed rules, which would permit the company to continue operating 17 Florida schools even if it fails to gain the federal nonprofit status it has sought since 2005.
Other school districts said the proposed changes left too much to chance. For example, the new rules would require that charter schools be run by organizations that are "not organized primarily for profit."
"If something is being done 'primarily for profit,' is that 50 percent, 51 percent, 75 percent?" asked Osceola board attorney Suzanne D'Agresta. "I'm concerned we're muddying the waters."
Michael D. Kooi, executive director of the Education Department's office of parental choice, said the state would take such objections into account in developing the final language, which the Board of Education must approve.
"I think these comments have been helpful, and we don't necessarily disagree with all of them," Kooi said.
Other districts criticizing the changes included Pasco, Miami-Dade, Osceola, Alachua, St. Lucie, Sarasota, and Duval.
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.