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School referendum funding bill heads to Florida House floor with some changes

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bryan Avila, amended the bill Tuesday to add more requirements to charter schools that receive a slice of funds from voter-approved referendums.
EVE EDELHEIT | Times
Published Apr. 16
Updated Apr. 16

The Florida House bill that would require school districts that have had successful voter referendums to share their additional funding with charter schools passed its final committee in the House on Tuesday, with a few significant changes. Its next stop is the House floor.

Under this bill, House Bill 7123, districts whose voters approved a higher property tax rate for school funding would need to share that money with charter schools starting in the next budget year. Charter schools are paid for with public money and run by private entities.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, added an amendment on Tuesday in the House Appropriations committee which would require charter schools that receive a slice of these funds to use them for the intended purpose of the referendums. In Miami-Dade for example, voters supported a measure in November to raise their property taxes with the express purpose of funding teacher salaries and increased school security.

The amendment also removed the financial penalty for school districts should they fail to properly share the funds with districts.

“Some of the members had ... concerns about enacting or implementing penalties,” Avila said. “This is a package that obviously still has a long way to go in terms of the negotiations with the Senate, so it’s still a work in progress.”

In the bill’s first committee, House Ways and Means, Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani from Orlando proposed an amendment that would have had a similar effect. At the time, her change was voted down but Avila pledged to take it under further consideration, which he said contributed to Tuesday’s amendment.

This bill would affect Pinellas, Miami-Dade, Broward and about a dozen other districts whose voters have approved property tax increases in the past. The Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando school districts have won voter approval for local sales tax increases, which would not be affected by this change.

The bill’s origins likely rest with an ongoing dispute in Miami over their approved property tax hike, as district officials have said they would not share the majority of the referendum money — the portion for teacher salaries — with charters. Although Avila has often pointed to his home county of Miami-Dade as a chief example of this problem, he’s emphasized the need for “clarity” statewide on this issue, especially to deal with ongoing lawsuits.

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

But some of the Democrats in Tuesday’s committee said they weren’t buying it, and were frustrated that Miami-Dade’s squabble could now have statewide implications.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, pointed to Palm Beach County, where voters approved a property tax hike after the school board stated that the money would not be shared with charter schools. That decision is now the subject of a lawsuit.

“We’re coming in and usurping will of the voters ... but they approved it overwhelmingly on that condition," he said. "How can we be doing this?”

Although the piece related to school referendum funding has seen the most contention, it’s part of a larger tax package, which would also significantly reduce the state’s commercial lease tax and set dates for this year’s sales-tax-free shopping days for back-to-school season and hurricane preparedness.

In past years, it’s been typical for the House to propose their tax package first, which the Senate can incorporate into their version. It’s unclear whether the Senate will accept the piece related to charter school funding.

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