Saturday, February 24, 2018
Education

Lawmakers hold off on plan for charter, public schools to share maintenance funds

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers are backing off a contentious proposal to have school districts share millions of dollars in maintenance funds with charter schools — and instead calling for a task force to study the issue.

School districts had aggressively fought the measure, saying it would cost them $140 million a year statewide and cripple their ability to pay down debt.

The idea stalled in the Senate, and couldn't seem to muster enough support in the House, even from pro-charter-school Republicans.

On Friday, a sweeping charter school bill passed on the House Floor — but the final version made no mention of giving additional tax dollars to charter schools.

"We didn't have consensus on the issue, said the sponsor, Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach.

The Senate version still has charter schools getting a cut of local school districts' construction money.

But Sen. Stephen Wise, the sponsor, said he might be okay with a plan being hatched by the committee now overseeing the education budget: a task force that would look into construction and maintenance funding for charter schools.

"That might take care of the issue," he said.

School districts officials on Friday were cautiously optimistic.

"It would be prudent for lawmakers to create a task force and look at charter schools on a whole," said Iraida Mendez-Cartaya, who oversees governmental relations for the Miami-Dade school district.

As initially proposed, the charter school bill had been a lightning rod.

Its backers said it was meant to address inequities in school funding.

Traditional public schools can levy property taxes for construction and maintenance. Charter schools, which receive other types of tax dollars, cannot.

Local school districts all but panicked, saying they needed the dollars for pressing repairs and to pay down debt.

The debates were intense; the procedural maneuverings closely watched.

Critics of the bill pointed out that much of the money would go to charter schools run by large management companies — many of which are flush with cash reserves. Charter school supporters countered by saying financially healthy charter schools shouldn't be penalized.

Adkins, the House sponsor, stripped the funding provision from the House version of the bill before it went to its first committee.

The bill Adkins brought to the House floor exempted charter schools from some reporting requirements. But it also made it more challenging for charter schools to earn a "high-performing" designation and incorporated a bill by Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami Beach, that calls for charter schools to publish information about their finances and management companies online.

Garcia and handful of other Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the bill, 86-30.

"If it had included that language about sharing the capital money," Garcia said, "my vote would have been different."

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