School districts won’t be required to share referendum funds with charters, for now

Pinellas passed its most recent property tax hike in 2016, and the extra funds allow the district to boast some of the highest teacher salaries in Tampa Bay. Current legislation doesn’t affect that or any other county in Florida.
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published May 2, 2019|Updated May 2, 2019

A last-minute change on the second-to-last day of the legislative session may save school districts from a new requirement that they share local referendum money, from voter-approved hikes in property taxes, with charter schools. But it’s not over yet.

One district in particular, Miami-Dade, barely squeaked by with all their referendum money to themselves, after it appeared that the Florida Senate would exempt all school districts from the new requirement except Florida’s largest county.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, the chair of the Senate’s education budgeting committee, filed an amendment Wednesday night that would have made the new requirement that districts share this money with charter schools apply only to referendums passed in the future, and not those already in effect. But a few lines near the end of the Stargel’s amendment provided an exception — Miami-Dade would have to share its money from a previous referendum with charters.

She said Thursday that when Miami-Dade voters approved the local property tax hike for schools last year to get extra money for public schools, the language was overly vague when it came to charter schools, even more-so than other counties.

“That one was ambiguous and others were clear,” Stargel said, “Personally I think we run into uncharted territory when we start letting local governments (have) … referendums of public dollars to pick and choose public entities and how they get them.”

The Florida House passed a version of the same bill with the charter school proposal applying to all property tax referendums, which would affect about 20 school districts including Pinellas and Broward. The fact that all mentions of charter schools were removed Thursday means that those districts will be off the hook from sharing their referendum money with charter schools. Pinellas passed its most recent property tax hike in 2016, and the extra funds allow the district to boast some of the highest teacher salaries in Tampa Bay.

Neither version of the bill would affect counties whose voters passed hikes in sales tax for schools, such as Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools operated by private entities. Miami voters overwhelmingly passed their school district’s 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 help pay teacher salaries. Referendum money will also be used for school security.

But because taking up a House bill in the Senate requires a two-thirds vote, Stargel said she heeded concerns from Democrats and took out all mentions of charter schools in the bill.

The Miami-Dade school district celebrated the development.

“There was no reason to specifically target Miami-Dade county. Like other school districts, we followed the state statutes,” said Iraida Mendez-Cartaya, an associate superintendent and lobbyist for Miami-Dade public schools. “It’s synonymous with the Monday after the Super Bowl, your team doesn’t win so let’s change the rules.”

But Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah, said he’s hoping the House will insist that it be added back on Friday, the final hours of session, possibly forcing the Senate to accept that — or no tax bill at all. The overall bill has a major reduction in businesses’ building lease tax, a priority for leadership and lawmakers of both parties.

“This thing is not over,” Diaz said, noting that House Speaker José Oliva of Miami Lakes sent a letter to Miami-Dade schools after district officials said they would not be sharing referendum money for teacher salaries with charter schools, saying that decision equated to “deception” of voters.

“About it being only Miami-Dade, I would prefer a policy that is applicable across-the-board,” Diaz added.

The frantic back-and-forth exemplifies the backroom conversations and last-minute decisions characteristic of the final days of the legislative session, when the pressure of the clock adds to the drama of the law-making process — and can be used as a tool. Any bills that have not been passed in identical forms by both chambers Friday will die.

“One thing about the legislative process is it’s never over until the handkerchief is dropped,” said Ralph Arza, a former state legislator and current lobbyist with the Florida Charter School Alliance, referring to the tradition that marks the end of the legislative session. “As long as there’s time on the clock, we owe it to all the charter school teachers and students in Florida to fight until the very last second.”

Florida Education Association Vice President Andrew Spar said voters in more than 20 counties with local referendums were clear. Not one school district millage referendum has ever failed.

“Voters went to the polls and they voted to fund their neighborhood public schools largely because lawmakers have failed to do it,” he said. “This is about local control. This is about the most local control you can get, the voters’ control. When we go to to polls and vote, we believe our vote means something. It’s never appropriate for lawmakers to undermine the will of the voters.”

Even though the Senate amended the bill, House Bill 7123, they had not passed it off the floor as of Thursday afternoon. Once the Senate passes it, it will go to the House to either be amended again or immediately passed and sent to the governor.

Miami Herald staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this story.