Bill in Florida House would require school districts to share local referendum money with charter schools

The bill would affect Pinellas, Miami-Dade and about a dozen other districts.
An empty classroom at Bloomingdale High School in Hillsborough County. [Skip O'Rourke | Times]
An empty classroom at Bloomingdale High School in Hillsborough County. [Skip O'Rourke | Times]
Published Apr. 10, 2019|Updated Apr. 10, 2019

Florida school districts that successfully pushed for a special local property tax to better fund public education would have to share that money with charter schools, under a bill filed this week in the Legislature.

The measure, proposed by the House Ways and Means Committee, would allow the state to withhold other sources of money from districts that don’t comply.

It would affect Pinellas, Miami-Dade, Broward and about a dozen other districts whose voters have approved property tax increases in the past. Those districts would be required, starting in the upcoming budget year, to spread that wealth to charter schools, which are financed by taxpayers but managed by private entities.

“We’re clarifying something the courts have had differing opinions on, so for us as legislators our main responsibility is to make sure the intent of the law is upheld,” said Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, who chairs the committee.

The recent court opinions have been the result of lawsuits — in Indian River and Palm Beach counties — over this very question.

While the ripple effects will be felt statewide, the new bill’s origins likely rest with an ongoing dispute in Miami, which overwhelmingly passed a property tax hike in November. About 88 percent of the funding expected to be collected in the first of four years — more than $200 million — already has been bargained with the teacher’s union to supplement teacher salaries.

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The remainder would go to placing a school resource officer in every school, and Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho said he has “increased consideration” for sharing that safety and security funding with charter schools.

Pinellas most recently passed its special property tax in 2016, with 76 percent of the vote. It generates about $40 million a year, of which 80 percent goes toward teacher salaries.

The tax is the reason Pinellas can boast the highest salary in the Tampa Bay area for starting teachers with a bachelor’s degree — $43,809. The rest of the money helps support art, music and literacy programs, and adds funding to expand libraries, buy school supplies and update computers.

As in Miami, the revenue already has been figured into the latest teacher contract, with $4,188 in referendum dollars going into each Pinellas teacher’s salary.

First approved by voters in 2004 and renewed every four years since then, the tax also has become a point of pride for district officials, who often speak about its benefits at public events.

Beth Rawlins, a Clearwater political consultant who has helped push for the money, said the new bill amounts to a power grab.

“I find it appalling that any elected official would attempt to enact a law to circumvent what the people have already voted on,” Rawlins said. “If a county’s voters vote to tax themselves to support privately run charter schools, then that’s their prerogative. But the voters who have supported these initiatives have not done that. They have voted to support their public schools.”

Longtime Pinellas School Board member Carol Cook said her concern is with a Legislature that, she says, doesn’t adequately fund all areas of education.

“When they are squeezing us and fertilizing charters,” she said, “it starts to be a problem.”

Carvalho, the Miami-Dade superintendent, said the district made clear its intent that the funding was to be used for district teachers, adding that no oversight mechanism is in place to ensure those dollars would be spent on charter school teachers. Critics have said Miami-Dade’s ballot language is vague and did not specify that the funding would be exclusively for teachers in traditional district schools.

While the Miami-Dade County school district has said it would not give those supplements to charter school teachers, House Speaker José Oliva, also a Republican from Hialeah area, sent a letter to school district leaders in February saying their decision amounted to “deception” of the voters.

“A teacher is a teacher,” said Avila, the committee chair pushing the new bill. “I could certainly make the argument I (was) putting in just as much of an effort and dedicating myself as much to my students as much as a traditional public school teacher.”

Avila was formerly a teacher at a charter school, Doral Academy Preparatory High.

The Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando school districts have won voter approval for local sales tax increases, which would not be affected by the proposed change. Pasco School Board members have in recent months talked about the idea of holding a property tax vote as a way to bolster teacher pay. But they have taken no steps toward holding a referendum.

Colleen Beaudoin, vice chairwoman of the Pasco School Board, said her district needs to consider all avenues to generate money for teacher salaries and other operations. But she said the district is watching this legislation, as well as other bills that would extend local property tax referenda from four to 10 years, increase the voter threshold for approval and require the votes to take place on general election dates only.

“We are waiting to see what the Legislature is going to do,” Beaudoin said.

Lynn Norman-Teck, executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance, said her organization supports “any measure that provides more equity in funding for all students.”

Yet she said her group would prefer that charter schools work through the issue with districts rather than have it handled through the Legislature. She noted that some districts already understand the need, mentioning Lake County sharing its property tax with charters and Hillsborough County sharing its new sales tax with some of its charters.

The bill, which is a package related to a long list of tax issues, is scheduled for its first public hearing Thursday morning in the House Ways and Means Committee at 9 a.m.

Miami Herald Staff Writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the lawmaker behind a political action committee. The PAC does not belong to Rep. Bryan Avila.)