Sunday, May 20, 2018
Education

Florida lawmakers agree to pour $100 million into maintenance and construction for public schools

TALLAHASSEE —Lawmakers reached a deal on K-12 education funding Monday that will pump more than $100 million into maintenance and construction for traditional public schools statewide.

District leaders celebrated the news. Most school systems have not received money from the Public Education Capital Outlay trust fund since 2011.

"We're ecstatic," Pasco County assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said. "We could use every penny."

Charter schools, however, were delivered a stinging blow. Despite growing enrollment statewide, they were given only three-quarters of the $91 million they received last year.

"We have more students, but the pie is smaller," said Larry Williams, a lobbyist for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools.

The budget has yet to be finalized, but the PECO plan is unlikely to meet resistance. Gov. Rick Scott has said he also wants to see the dollars shared among districts and charter schools.

PECO has become one of the Legislature's perennial battles.

The fund, which is generated by a tax on landline telephones and cable TV, used to provide millions of construction dollars to traditional public schools. But the tax revenues have been slowly drying up — and charter schools were winning a larger share of the money.

This year, lawmakers plan for nearly $500 million in PECO dollars. About $320 million goes to construction and maintenance projects at state colleges and universities.

The state's 67 school districts will receive a total of $50 million for maintenance.

Seven small districts — Glades, Washington, Madison, Levy, Calhoun, Holmes and Dixie — receive $59.7 million for facilities projects.

Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said the upper chamber intended to send a message to school districts: "We want to fix the leaky roofs of gymnasiums. We want to make sure our classrooms are in good condition."

"Both the House and the Senate came together to address needs for a lot of counties where there are fiscal challenges, and also to just do some general work in making sure our public schools are well taken care of," Negron said.

Charter schools had asked for at least $100 million from the PECO fund. They pointed out that school districts can levy property taxes to support construction and maintenance, while charter schools cannot.

House Budget Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, included the $100 million in his initial budget proposal. But the Senate insisted on $50 million.

The Senate has had less of an appetite to grow charter schools than in years past. Earlier in the session, the upper chamber watered down an industry-backed proposal that would change the way districts enter into contracts with charter school operators.

The two chambers had initially settled on the Senate PECO offer — until the House added another $25 million for charter schools during late-night negotiations Monday.

Charter school advocates were pleased with the bump. But Williams, of the charter school consortium, said there was a need to revisit PECO in the future.

"This shines a light on the need to find a reliable, recurring source of revenue to fund PECO so there is not a fight," he said.

State lawmakers are indeed considering changes to the PECO fund. State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam has been pushing a plan to re-direct a portion of the corporate energy tax from general revenue into the PECO fund.

The House has included the language in a larger tax cut package (HB 5601). The Senate version of the bill (SB 1076) is stalled in committee.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected]

Update: This story was updated Tuesday based on a budget conference Monday night.

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