1. Florida Politics

Charter vs. public schools: Will state fund construction or is local tax hike coming?

Kid's Community College students enjoy lunch as posters from a recent project are seen in the background Wednesday, May 11, 2016 in Riverview. Just over 300 students, grades K-5, attend the charter school. The school recently applied to add middle school grades.
Kid's Community College students enjoy lunch as posters from a recent project are seen in the background Wednesday, May 11, 2016 in Riverview. Just over 300 students, grades K-5, attend the charter school. The school recently applied to add middle school grades.
Published Mar. 8, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — A complicated and controversial measure to change how Florida's 4,300 public schools get taxpayer money for construction and maintenance projects is limping through the Florida Senate, advancing even as lawmakers agree it needs a lot more work before it might become law.

Senators behind the measure (SB 376) envision the final bill would have two main elements: It would require school districts to share local tax dollars with charter schools, and it would give school boards the freedom to raise local tax rates back to pre-recession levels, so that they could collect more revenue to address the backlog of maintenance needs in traditional public schools.

Senate education leaders say the first part is not possible without the second, but efforts to restore the school districts' tax-rate cap might not have the votes to pass because it could be construed as a tax increase.

While that debate lingers, it's not the only issue now. The ideal bill some senators want could also carry another consequence that Republican Senate leaders revealed this week but that lawmakers have not yet discussed in public committee hearings.

Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who chairs the chamber's Pre-K-12 education budget committee, told reporters if SB 376 is implemented with both crucial parts, "there won't be a need" for the state to provide its current share of capital outlay funding — an annual moving target that has dwindled over the years but nonetheless still accounted for $150 million this year for charter and traditional public schools.

"We can free up that," Simmons said. He added that allowing school districts to raise their own tax rates "supplants the need" for general revenue capital dollars from the state, although lawmakers could still allocate dollars for school capital projects if they wanted.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told reporters Tuesday he envisions that outcome, too.

"My personal goal going into session was that we would get out of the business of, at the end of session, deciding that we're going to give $50 million in (capital outlay) for charter schools, or $75 million," he said.

"There's complete uncertainty about it," Negron said of that process, adding that the state capital dollars for K-12 schools are "competing with other dollars that, to me, should be for universities and community colleges."

But attempts to further reduce or outright eliminate state capital dollars for K-12 schools would put another wrinkle in an already complicated perennial debate.

Forcing districts to rely solely on their own local tax revenue for capital projects — even with the ability to collect more dollars under a higher cap — might cost them money and still won't meet districts' needs, some district officials said.

Broward County Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer, of Lighthouse Point, has worked closely with Simmons to craft SB 376 and he strongly supports allowing school districts to restore their higher tax rates. But he told the Times/Herald Wednesday he was unaware Negron and Simmons were contemplating doing away with the state capital dollars if the bill went through.

Of state capital aid this year to K-12 public schools, $75 million went to the state's 650 charter schools and the other $75 million was divided among about 3,600 traditional public schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed.

Farmer said he wouldn't support doing away with state dollars for traditional schools' capital needs because, even if districts raised their tax rates, "it would be insufficient."

Representatives from at least 10 school districts — including Broward and Pinellas counties — urged senators on Wednesday to support letting districts restore their tax rates. Many districts, like Miami-Dade County, also don't want to be forced to share their limited local dollars with charter schools, citing budget concerns.

Farmer, with Simmons' support, wants the rate restored to the original level, and he filed amendments during the first two committee hearings for SB 376 to do that. But he withdrew it both times, most recently Wednesday, because he didn't have the votes.

"This concept that increasing — or giving schools the option of increasing — their millage is somehow a mandate by us or a tax increase, I don't believe that's true," Farmer said. "We, as a legislative body, have to have the courage to give our local districts what they need."

While charter school advocates have long sought to get a piece of the local tax pie — it's optional for districts to do now, but not required — Simmons said doing that simply isn't possible unless lawmakers also grant districts the freedom to raise local taxes.

If districts were required to share their revenue with charter schools without having the flexibility to raise taxes, "there are school districts that this would immediately put them in default under their bonding obligations," Simmons said, citing Lake County as an example.

"We can't do that. We have got to come up with a solution that will work, that will not put some of our school districts in default," Simmons said. "I'm not prepared to do that. I'm prepared to find a way that will solve two significant problems that exist right now."

Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark