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Florida Legislature exploring change to school districts by city

Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins in August welcomes more than 1,200 new teachers before the start of the school year. Hillsborough, one of the state's biggest school districts, could be dramatically affected by a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate mandatory countywide school districts and let cities break away to set up their own.  [SKIP O'ROURKE  |  Times]
Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins in August welcomes more than 1,200 new teachers before the start of the school year. Hillsborough, one of the state's biggest school districts, could be dramatically affected by a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate mandatory countywide school districts and let cities break away to set up their own. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times]
Published Jan. 22, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers are in the early stages of exploring a drastic overhaul to how public schools are locally governed in Florida, which some superintendents and school board officials say could have severe consequences on equitable funding and educational opportunities for 2.8 million schoolchildren.

Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, are proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow citywide school districts, instead of the countywide oversight the Florida Constitution requires.

The Constitution empowers lawmakers to create and dissolve cities and special districts, and Caldwell said that should extend to school boards, also. He argued the proposal (HJR 539/SJR 734) would increase local control over neighborhood schools.

"When you look at our larger school districts, parents don't feel they're able to have the kind of impact they want to. It's an impracticality of a large district," Caldwell said.

School superintendents said the system of countywide districts works well and saves taxpayers' money. They said increasing the number of school districts statewide would cause administrative costs to skyrocket, without actually improving student outcomes.

"It would significantly deteriorate the amount of funding that actually goes into the classroom," Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie said.

Florida is home to more than a dozen of the top 100 largest school districts in the country. Miami-Dade County is the fourth-largest in the nation, with more than 350,000 students. Not far behind is Broward County in sixth place, with 260,000 students, and Hillsborough County in eighth, with more than 200,000.

Florida House members from both parties seemed receptive during a workshop discussion this week to flesh out the concept of city school districts.

But some lawmakers and school board representatives caution that chopping up the state's 67 county districts could have major repercussions that ought to be addressed, ranging from financial consequences to socio-economic parity.

The biggest fear: Students in wealthier cities would have access to better schools than those in impoverished areas, because those schools would have a more concentrated, more affluent tax base from which to draw local funding.

"In the countywide structure, you have a better way of mitigating inequitable resource distribution, with property values varying from city to city in the same county," Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said. "The county acts as an economic and educational equalizer of opportunities."

Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning questioned how lawmakers would ensure equitable funding across schools.

"You're going to have some schools in the same area that are funded by different jurisdictions, possibly at different levels," he said. "I think it's bad public policy."

Lawmakers also had some pause.

"I'm a child of the '60s and one of the concerns I have is separate-but-equal," Rep. Larry Lee Jr., D-Port St. Lucie, said, referring to unconstitutional racial segregation. "I can see the good side that you're looking at of a particular city having its own school district ... but I keep going back to those cities that have greater financial resources will have the better schools."

Caldwell told the House committee that some county districts today are more well off than others across the state, so disparity already exists.

On the financial end, aside from increased administrative costs, superintendents and school board representatives cite other consequences. Among them: District facilities and debt would have to be divided, newer districts wouldn't have any credit history for bond ratings — which help secure lower interest rates — and they'd also lack purchasing power to get the lowest prices on bulk supplies.

For residents, homeowners' property values could be harmed in some cases, they said.

Caldwell acknowledges lawmakers would have a difficult road ahead to figure out the details of implementing his and Brandes' proposal — which is among the ideas advocated for by Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who's due to become the next House speaker in November.

But first, Caldwell said lawmakers — and later voters — would have to embrace the concept of change. Constitutional amendments need three-fifths' approval in both the Florida House and Senate and then 60 percent approval from voters to be enacted.

"The political question would be put on our shoulders," Caldwell said. Then "it would be on us and future Legislatures to guard against poor decisions" in implementing it.

Caldwell said he wants the proposal approved this session in time for the 2016 ballot. But he acknowledged it might take more time.

State and national school board representatives urged lawmakers to clarify their objective for divvying up districts into city-level entities in the first place.

"There's no clear evidence at all that larger districts, smaller districts, have an impact on student achievement or efficiency," Tom Gentzel, executive director of the National School Boards Association, told lawmakers via Skype.

He said the trend nationally has been combining districts into larger ones, leading to fewer districts nationwide.

The Florida School Boards Association hasn't taken a formal position on the proposal, but executive director Andrea Messina raised numerous concerns during the House hearing.

Another flashpoint: The proposal would eliminate the requirement that school board members run in nonpartisan races, and it would allow city or county boards to serve as school boards.

"Typically Florida has had a history of shielding Florida school boards from partisanship. It's an important consideration," Messina said.

Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, said allowing partisan races could offer more transparency for voters. Overall, he said, the proposed constitutional amendment is "thought-provoking."

"Just because it's new doesn't mean it's something we should not be looking at," Geller said.

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Contact Kristen M. Clark at kclark@miamiherald.com. Follow @ByKristenMClark.