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Public and charter schools compete for shrinking building funds

Public and charter schools are competing for a shrinking pot of money in a fund for construction and maintenance.
Public and charter schools are competing for a shrinking pot of money in a fund for construction and maintenance.
Published Mar. 30, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — It's become one of the perennial fights in the Florida Legislature.

In one corner: cash-strapped school systems with aging facilities and billions of dollars tied up in debt service.

In the other: charter schools looking to build and refurbish facilities of their own.

Both want dollars from the Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) trust fund, an ever-shrinking pot of money generated by a disappearing tax on cable TV and landline telephones.

This year, the Senate, House and Gov. Rick Scott all want to split the K-12 portion between charter schools and traditional school districts. It's a departure from recent years, when only charter schools landed the funds. The wrangling has already begun.

There is some common ground: Both charter schools and school districts support a bill that would shift revenue from an existing tax on commercial energy consumption to the PECO fund.

But the bill may be a tough sell to Scott.

"The governor's budget prioritizes K-12 education, without creating more debt or permanently earmarking general funds, limiting future flexibility," Scott spokesman John Tupps said in a statement. "For these reasons, we have concerns about the proposal."

In the not-so-distant past, the PECO fund supplied hundreds of millions of dollars for capital projects. But as landline telephones have disappeared, the fund has slowly dried up.

Last year, charter schools received $91 million from the PECO fund. For the third year in a row, traditional public schools received nothing.

The rationale, according to lawmakers: Traditional public schools can levy property taxes to support maintenance and construction. Charter schools, which are run by private governing boards, cannot.

The decision prompted debate. Opponents said taxpayer dollars should not go to charter school facilities because they are not public assets. But charter school advocates argued that all children should receive the same amount in state education funding.

This year, the House is recommending $100 million in PECO funds for charter schools and $50 million for traditional public schools.

At a House Appropriations Committee meeting Wednesday, Democrats said the amount for traditional public schools was not enough.

"I know that in (the) Broward County (School District), just for the maintenance on the roofs alone, the required dollar amount is $42 million," said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach.

Budget Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, said he and other lawmakers understood school systems' needs.

"We've proposed providing $50 million in additional cash over and above the (property tax revenue) that (school districts) have," he said.

The Senate is suggesting $50 million for charter schools and $40 million for traditional public schools.

Scott is taking a different approach. He wants to give $80 million in PECO funds for traditional public schools and $90.6 million in PECO and lottery funds for charter schools.

But there's a catch: New charter schools would have to serve at-risk students and obtain a surety bond to receive the money.

The governor's budget also sets aside $72 million in lottery funds for construction projects in seven small school districts: Calhoun, Dixie, Glades, Holmes, Levy, Madison and Washington.

Wayne Blanton, of the Florida School Boards Association, said all three proposals represented "a step toward getting us back to where we used to be."

"We need the dollars, not for new buildings, but for maintenance and renovations," he said.

Larry Williams of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools said he, too, appreciated the proposed amounts.

Some lawmakers are now looking to boost the fund.

Earlier this year, state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam proposed cutting the commercial electricity tax from 7 percent to 3.5 percent, and funneling the remaining $225 million in revenue into school maintenance and construction. The tax dollars currently go into the state's general fund.

"The system we have in place to fund our education infrastructure is not sustainable," Putnam said. "Our proposal is a long-term, sustainable source of funding to provide our schools the resources they need to get our kids college-, career- and workforce-ready."

The House version (PCB FTSC 14-05) proposes cutting the tax to 3 percent and moving the remaining $180 million into PECO.

The Senate version (SB 1076) provides less funding for education. It was recently amended to cut the commercial electricity tax to 1.75 percent, meaning an estimated $112.5 million in revenue would flow into PECO. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, told reporters the change was intended to help win Scott's support.

Even if lawmakers are able to shore up the PECO fund, charter schools are hoping for a long-term solution to their capital needs. Moving forward, they want a dedicated source of facilities funding.

"As more charter schools come online, there is a demonstrated need for a bigger pie," Williams said.

"We're going to be looking for ways to provide significant dollars on a long-term basis."

Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

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