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Hillsborough's charter schools apply for a slice of the sales-tax hike pie

Deputy superintendent Chris Farkas, shown here during a news conference in August, told an oversight committee Friday he’ll return with answers to questions about charter schools and the recent sales tax hike.  [Times (2018)]
Deputy superintendent Chris Farkas, shown here during a news conference in August, told an oversight committee Friday he’ll return with answers to questions about charter schools and the recent sales tax hike. [Times (2018)]
Published Mar. 15, 2019

Lutz Preparatory School has stucco peeling off the front of a modular building. Trinity School For Children needs to replace some of its air conditioners and patch up a fence.

Both charter schools want some of the sales tax money that the Hillsborough County Public Schools are collecting through a referendum that voters approved in November.

But will they get it?

READ MORE: With sales tax money on the way, 21 Hillsborough schools will get new air conditioning soon

The requests, totalling $145,000 so far, brought sharp words from members of a citizens oversight committee that met Friday. Some voiced strong reservations against sharing the money with charter schools, which receive tax dollars but are managed independent of local school boards.

"This is really problematic," said committee chairwoman Betty Castor, who pointed out that district-run schools have suffered for years with ailing air conditioning systems and weakened roofs, not to mention security demands in the aftermath of the 2018 killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

"It is," agreed member Bonnie Carr. "The public schools have been waiting, and that deferred maintenance list has been growing."

Questions surrounding referendum dollars are being raised in Tallahassee and elsewhere as more school districts ask local voters to kick in for expenses that, they say, are not covered by the state.

In Palm Beach County, a lawsuit by three charter schools alleges the district there discriminated illegally against charter students by excluding them from a property tax expected to bring in $200 million a year.

But the Palm Beach situation is different, Hillsborough deputy superintendent Chris Farkas told the oversight group. The referendum there made it clear that the money was off-limits for charter schools, Farkas said.

Framers of the Hillsborough referendum did not make such a distinction.

The Hillsborough district decided early on that charter schools could apply for funds if they owned their buildings and if the money was to be used for deferred maintenance.

Only six of the estimated 50 charter schools in Hillsborough own their own buildings, Farkas said. They include Lutz Preparatory and Trinity School. Village of Excellence has made inquiries about the money but has not yet made a request. The other three are Learning Gate, Pepin Academies and Terrace Community Middle School.

Most of the remaining schools lease their buildings. That makes them ineligible, district leaders say, because if the school were to close, the building owner would get the benefit of the tax dollars.

Members of the oversight committee said they will have a lot of questions for the six charter schools before they even consider granting a request.

"At a minimum, they should have to meet all the criteria that the public schools have to meet," Castor said. That includes a competitive bidding process and extensive financial audits. She and Carr said they will have more questions about the schools' missions and student populations.

Member Jose Valiente said he would want to review federal forms that the schools must file as tax-exempt organizations, and verify that they satisfy their payroll tax obligations. There was also a suggestion, from Carr, that the committee review minutes of the schools' governing boards to make sure they are not thinking about becoming private.

Referendums and charter school funding are explosive issues in education circles.

In advance of this year's legislative session, lawmakers filed bills that would regulate when communities can schedule referendums and how they can distribute the money.

There is also concern, as every year, about how capital dollars will be divided between the charter sector and the district schools.

This school year, Hillsborough's district schools are receiving $3.5 million from PECO, a state capital fund that comes from utility taxes. Its charter schools, by contrast, are receiving $11.7 million in PECO funds.

District leaders say their more-than 200 schools average nearly 50 years old, although some of needing air conditioners replaced are much newer.

The modular building at Lutz Preparatory was constructed in 2012 alongside the main building, which was built in 2008. Lutz Preparatory serves 782 students in grades K-8.

Trinity was built in 2001 and serves 848 students, according to district and county records.

There was no resolution to the charter issue Friday. Farkas took down the members' questions and said he will return with more information, possibly with the district's general manager of charter schools, as well.

Separately, Farkas said preliminary work is under way on 18 air conditioning jobs, even though the first monthly check for $11 million to $12 million is not expected until March 25.

The district is using existing funds and will pay itself back with the tax proceeds.

If his team were to wait, Farkas said, they would not be able to complete the air conditioning jobs before children return from summer break in August.

Contact Marlene Sokol at msokol@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol.

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