TALLAHASSEE — When voters choose to hike their local property taxes to help schools in their county, that money would need to be shared between districts and charter schools under a bill passed by the Florida House.
The bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Bryan Avila of Hialeah. The late-night debate largely became a South Florida fight as Democrat and Republican representatives from Miami-Dade duked it out on the floor of the House over an ongoing fight happening in Miami that may now have statewide implications.
As the legislative session races to the finish line, the House has been in overtime, and this bill was passed just before midnight Thursday night.
In the 2018 midterm elections, Miami-Dade voters approved a raise in their sales tax for teacher salary raises and school safety measures required in the law passed after the Parkland shooting last year. However, district officials have said they would not be sharing the salary portion — the majority of the funds — with charter schools.
“Whether you’re a charter school teacher or a traditional public school teacher, you’re doing the same thing,” Avila, himself a former charter school teacher, said. “We put in blood, sweat and tears, we care for our kids. So when a school district says, ‘We’re going to have a levy but these public (charter) school teachers need to be excluded?’ I think that’s not only wrong, I think it’s immoral.”
Charter schools are publicly funded schools operated by private entities, and are defined as public schools under Florida law.
Avila said Miami-Dade’s ballot language proposing the increased property tax was “as vague as possible," and he accused the district of intentionally being unclear on whether charter schools would get a cut of the funds until after the referendum passed.
Democratic Rep. Dotie Joseph, also of Miami, said this bill is “smoke and mirrors” simply because Republicans didn’t like how districts are using their discretionary spending when they raise local money to go above inadequate state funds.
“We try to play like the voters don’t know what they’re doing. They know absolutely what they’re doing,” she said. “What happened here was simple: Tallahassee failed us so we took matters into our own hands at the local level.”
The presidents of both the statewide teachers’ union and the Miami-Dade teachers’ union held a news conference earlier this week at the Florida Capitol where they protested this bill and said lawmakers were usurping the will of the voters.
“Some of our educators already started to receive some of this (referendum) funding with the negotiations we finished in January, so now if you’re putting this in place, you’re creating a big dilemma for us,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, the United Teachers of Dade union president. “We had over 71 percent of the community said yes ... when they voted, they knew they were voting for our public schools.”
Beyond the fight in Miami, Avila also pointed out an ongoing lawsuit in Palm Beach County over this exact issue, which he said proves the point that greater “clarity” is needed in the law to settle that districts must share their funds.
Around 20 school districts in the state have reaped the benefits of voter-approved increases to local property taxes, including Pinellas.
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.
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.
In addition to the piece about school funding, House Bill 7123, the House’s tax package, also would 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.
There is currently no similar language related to referendum money in the Florida Senate, though that is fairly typical for this point in the process when dealing with tax bills. It’s unclear so far whether the Senate will take up a similar idea.