TALLAHASSEE — A familiar face is back at the center of a perennial tug-of-war in the Florida Legislature between privately-managed charter schools and district-run public schools over taxpayer money for construction projects:
Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who controls the purse for education funding in the Florida House. His connections to the charter school industry continue to raise questions about conflicts of interest.
He has fast-tracked a mid-session bill that would limit school district spending on capital needs. It would also force districts to share their construction tax money with charters.
Fresen is a $150,000-a-year land consultant for Civica, an architecture firm with a specialty in building charter schools. Many of those schools were built for Academica — which has been described as the largest charter school management company in Florida and which counts Fresen's brother-in-law and sister as executives.
Fresen says he simply wants to hold districts accountable for the money they spend and ensure equitable funding for charter schools, which are classified as public schools.
"Nothing in this bill has anything to do with anything that I do for a living," he said.
But Fresen, 39, is dogged by questions that his goal isn't so well-intentioned. His ties to the charter school industry — well-documented during his eight years in the Legislature — have long rankled public school supporters and made him the subject of at least one ethics complaint since he was elected in 2008.
"Our Legislature should not be for sale. I think that seems to be what's happening," said Kayla Rynor, who helps lead the advocacy committee at Miami Beach Senior High's PTSA. "The appearance of impropriety just doesn't sit well and I'm not sure why it's not a violation of state ethics laws."
Fresen is far from the only influential lawmaker with documented ties to the charter industry.
The wife of House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes Republican, founded a charter school in Pasco County. Corcoran is in line to be House speaker starting in November and he endorses Fresen's proposal. He said his wife only volunteers at the school.
Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. — whose legislation is the vehicle for Fresen's plan — is Chief Operating Officer of Doral College, which is run by Academica. In the Senate, Trinity Republican Sen. John Legg helped found a charter school, which he and his wife run.
Thanks to the state's broad ethics laws, Fresen and other lawmakers with connections to the charter industry are free to not only propose legislation that benefits charter schools, but they can also vote in support of such bills.
In the same vein, so can lawmakers who work for or with traditional schools. For example, Senate education budget Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is a former Okaloosa County superintendent, Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, is a teacher, and Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, runs the state superintendents' association.
School districts and charters have sparred over construction money for years. Supporters of districts note that traditional schools are already squeezed for capital dollars and public money spent on charter projects often winds up benefiting private companies. Charter school advocates argue they deserve state money, too, because public school students should be funded equally no matter where their parents send them.
Fresen is used to accusations about conflicts of interest. He said he wants to "de-politicize the conversation between charters and conventional" schools by enacting an equitable funding formula, where charter schools can benefit from local tax dollars, too.
And he has support from others in the House who argue charter schools aren't funded equally with traditional schools. However, charter schools in recent years have gotten the lion's share of state construction money, despite enrolling far fewer students than district-run schools.
"It's time that we recognize that our charter public schools are public schools and that we, as a Legislature, have the responsibility to ensure that there's adequate funding for those facilities," said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, the House K-12 Subcommittee chairwoman.
Fresen proposed the reforms after presenting data showing 30 percent of school capital projects since 2006 exceed the state cap on per-student-station costs, or what it costs to build the space for one student.
District superintendents disagree with Fresen's conclusion; they argue it's too simplistic and doesn't account for extenuating circumstances and specific project needs.
Meanwhile, the state has given $70 million in capital money to charter schools that later closed. The public rarely gets any of that money back, since it is often spent on rent.
"This is all sucking money from the public school system, which is subject to oversight, which is subject to elected officials. We have recourse," Rynor said. "We don't have that with charter schools. And now we're going to give them money to build buildings that will not remain in the public domain."
School districts already complain they don't get enough money from the state to keep up with construction and maintenance costs. The Miami-Dade district resorted to issuing a $1.2 billion bond, approved overwhelmingly by voters, to make such routine repairs as fixing air conditioners. In Fresen's district alone, Miami-Dade is spending $51 million in bond money.
The Senate on Thursday countered Fresen's proposal with its own, which also limits district spending but could actually make it more difficult for charter schools to get state aid.
The debate comes at a time when lawmakers will start budget negotiations, including how much in base capital funding to give the state's 650 charter schools and its 3,600 traditional public schools.
Both the House and Senate's budget plans keep traditional schools' funding level at $50 million. Charter schools are the bargaining chip: The Senate proposes no money for them, while the House proposes $90 million.
Some fellow lawmakers question whether Fresen's business and personal ties pose a conflict of interest with his legislative priorities.
"I think that he would say 'no;' there are others that may believe that it is, and I tell everyone to make the judgment for themselves," said Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens. "When we allocate $50 million last year (to charters), we come back and give it $40 million more this year, and we cut traditional schools — you tell me."
Aside from being chairman of the House education budget committee, Fresen wields considerable influence over education policy and school spending through other roles. He also sits on the appropriations and education committees, the joint budget commission and the K-12 subcommittee.
Fresen has declared a voting conflict just once, in 2011. He did so after a Tallahassee mom filed an ethics complaint against him for voting on a proposal that would give benefits to some charter schools. The complaint was dismissed.
Florida has broad voting conflict laws for state officers. State legislators are only required to abstain from voting in narrow situations where they will be directly affected by new law or regulations. If a proposal could affect a state officer indirectly — through a family member or an employer — the elected official is allowed to vote.
Katy Sorenson, who served on the Miami-Dade commission for 16 years and now runs The Good Government Initiative, called state ethics laws a "recipe for corruption."
Local elected officials are held to much more stringent standards than state officials. County commissioners and city council members can't even discuss proposals that impact them directly or indirectly. They have to leave the dais.
"That's a clear line and that protects the public because, well, it goes to public trust," Sorenson said. "It protects the public from having their elected officials, shall we say, profit from public office."
The state's laws are broadly written on purpose. Serving in the part-time Legislature pays only about $30,000, so most lawmakers also have day jobs and narrow conflict-of-interest laws could become a burden.
"That might mean a lot of legislators wouldn't be able to vote," said Ben Wilcox, research director of the government watchdog Integrity Florida. "But I think it would give the public some assurance that legislators aren't voting on bills that are going to benefit them."
Sorenson pointed out that local elected officials tend to be paid even less. County commissioners are paid $6,000, she said. Still, they are held to more stringent ethics requirements.
"The Legislature has passed that law in Tallahassee," Sorenson said. "They exempted themselves but applied it to local governments."
Christina Veiga reported from Miami and Kristen M. Clark reported from the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau.