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  1. Education

New law aiding charter schools leaves some of them behind

In his years as a state lawmaker and legislative leader on education issues, John Legg, a charter school operator, pushed for better funding for charters. Now his charter school, Dayspring Academy in Pasco County, won't benefit from a new law that shares state capital funding with charters. Legg left the state Senate last year. [SCOTT KEELER | TIMES]

Published Aug. 4, 2017

Former state senator John Legg found himself in an awkward position.

A charter school operator who spent years pushing the state to fund building needs for charters, he stood before the Pasco County School Board to criticize a new law that does just that.

While the law will benefit many charters, it will not generate any money for Legg's Dayspring Academy, one of the state's oldest continuously operating charter schools.

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The problem stems from the formula that lawmakers devised to give charters a share of the state's revenue for capital improvements. It hinges on how much debt each district has, and that's created some unexpected results.

In Pasco, for example, the school district has so much debt from its own construction projects that it will not be required to send any money to otherwise eligible charters within the county.

In Pinellas County, meanwhile, a different concern has arisen.

Because of its low debt — the district covered a recent $60 million school renovation with cash reserves — Pinellas is on the hook to send nearly $5 million to eligible charter schools in the county. That's more than all but five other school districts in the state, and higher than larger ones like Hillsborough and Duval.

Pinellas officials have complained to their legislators that the law treats the district unjustly.

"There's got to be a more equitable method," said Kevin Smith, Pinellas' associate superintendent of finance.

While Smith wouldn't propose a model that ignores districts' debt, impairing their ability to repay what they owe, he also found it unreasonable — and perhaps unconstitutional — that some districts would face much higher per-student costs for charter school capital than others.

The Florida Constitution provides for a "uniform" system of free public schools.

Addressing the Pasco School Board last week, Legg cited the same portion of the Constitution in offering a solution his school might seek.

Calling it Dayspring's longshot third option — behind seeking eventual backing from a corporate operator — Legg said, "we would seek relief in some sort of court system" if charters end up getting one-tenth of the capital funding per student that traditional county schools receive.

He reminded the board that the Constitution calls for equitable funding of public education, of which charters are a part.

Legg asked board members to consider sharing money, despite what the new law says. He predicted dire consequences for local charter schools if nothing changes.

"We are concerned about the future of Dayspring," he told the board, noting the school's capital budget for 2017-18 was lower than in 2001, when it had 200 students. Now it has nearly 800.

Legg's message, which also came from other local operators, resulted in a lukewarm pledge from board members and superintendent Kurt Browning to "look into" their concerns.

"I can certainly understand the position you are in because the district has been having to cut and adjust budgets, both operations and capital, for a number of years," Browning wrote to Academy at the Farm director Ray Polk, who also sent an email seeking support. He urged Polk to talk to lawmakers.

As a rule, district officials haven't been keen on handing over local tax revenue, even if the formula works to their advantage this year. They've joined others in arguing that the state has no authority to dictate how those receipts are spent, adding they have enough demonstrated need of their own.

Charter schools, by contrast, need not specify their capital needs to receive and use tax money.

Leaders of the state's charter school organizations have not rushed to defend charters in Pasco and counties like Lake and St. Lucie, where high district debt also will keep money away from charters.

After all, the new law directs millions of dollars toward their coffers in the grander scheme of things.

Only a handful of charters don't stand to benefit, and many are smaller and unaffiliated with the companies that dominate the scene, such as Academica, Charter Schools USA and Imagine.

Some Pasco charter schools haven't taken up the charge, either. Among them is Classical Prep, founded by attorney Anne Corcoran, whose husband, Richard Corcoran, spearheaded the new law as state House speaker.

Classical Prep is completing new buildings that will open this fall for its growing student body. It used a traditional loan to pay for the project, Anne Corcoran said, and did not rely on state or district money.

Instead, she said, it cut unneeded items such as a basketball court, and accepted donations wherever possible, including teacher desks.

"Charter school funding always fluctuates, so we always budget as if it's not there," she said. "We'd love to have $1,000 extra per student, but if we don't, we don't."

Also not sweating the new law are Hillsborough County school district leaders. More and more, they are depending on charters to absorb steep enrollment growth as they incur debt on their own to erect new schools.

The law's profile is therefore both limited, and somewhat welcome, in the fast-growing district.

"We've got to make do," chief business officer Gretchen Saunders said, noting she had heard no complaints from either side.

Smith, the Pinellas associate superintendent, said districts already had the option to share their tax revenue with charter schools, and should not be forced to do so.

Even the Broward County School Board, the first in Florida to announce its intent to sue the state over the new law, has stated it would voluntarily send some money to the charter schools run by the city of Pembroke Pines, another government entity.

Legg hopes Pasco might take a similar approach to his school, which by contract reverts to the district if it ever closes.

So far, he's received only a nod of acknowledgment.

Said School Board member Colleen Beaudoin: "Staff is trying to find a solution to a problem we didn't create."

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