Why weren't charter schools used as shelters during Hurricane Irma?

Many traditional public schools, including Wiregrass Ranch High, were called into shelter service during Hurricane Irma.
Many traditional public schools, including Wiregrass Ranch High, were called into shelter service during Hurricane Irma.
Published Sept. 18, 2017

Traditional county public schools across the Tampa Bay region and Florida are cleaning up after sheltering thousands of residents and their pets who sought safety from Hurricane Irma.

Only a handful of charter schools opened their doors for the storm. There was one in Polk County, and another in Marion. Meanwhile, some charters that were less impacted by the water and wind began reopening Thursday, such as Classical Preparatory in Pasco County.

Many of our readers took note. And they weren't too happy about it.

Alan Pentarin posted on the Gradebook Facebook page: "Challenge to the reporters tied to this site. The traditional schools built to a higher standard served as places of shelter and security. What do the STATE LEADERS (legislators-governor not DOE talking heads) have to show how charter schools served the public better during the hurricane. How can they justify the diversion of capital outlay funds to maintain/pay for buildings that did not serve the public. Remember those rules that the charters get to ignore are creates by those sane legislators."

The item quickly generated dozens of "Likes," along with added commentary both praising the school systems for their dedication, and criticizing the use of state money on charter schools. They observed that the state is now forcing school districts to share local tax money with charters, and at the same time reducing some building code requirements for the charters.

"Please dig into this issue. The public needs to know ....while the aftermath of this hurricane is still fresh in our minds," Amy Lee wrote.

The answer is simple. And it's likely to please few, as the same lawmakers that are getting bashed created the rules that make charters unlikely candidates for shelter use.

Bottom line, state law does not require charters to meet traditional school construction guidelines for hurricane protections.

Statute has this to say about charter school buildings: "The local governing authority shall not adopt nor impose local building requirements or restrictions that are more stringent than those found in the Florida Building Code." As a result, "no one inspects them at that level," said former state Sen. John Legg, who runs a Pasco County charter school.

Part of the reason is that while charter schools get state money for operations at the same per-student amount as traditional schools, they have received limited state money, and no local funds, for capital projects.

Lawmakers recently changed that rule in HB 7069, telling school districts to share a portion of their local capital tax revenue with the charters. Legg, no longer in the Legislature, suggested that lawmakers might consider changing construction standards for charter schools that receive local funding.

The Pasco County school district did send a request to all school employees, including at charters, for paid volunteers to work the shelters. District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said each shelter kept track of who signed in, for accounting purposes, but the breakdown was not yet available.

Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version to note that a small number of charter schools were used as shelters. A Polk County official said one charter school that had been converted from a district school was used. A Marion County district official confirmed that none were used there.