Fla. lawmakers face conundrum on charter school facilities funding

Top Florida senators say they’re prepared to create a stable, predictable funding source for charter school facilities.

But the road to get there remains uncertain, even after a second Senate panel voted today to advance a measure that would require school districts to share local property tax revenue with charters.

Charter schools in Florida receive the same operational funding as traditional public schools. But when it comes to money for facilities, they rely on annual appropriations from the Legislature. That funding has stagnated even as charters continue to grow, and it’s far below what traditional public schools receive.

On Tuesday, Senate President Joe Negron told reporters that’s unacceptable.

Education funding should follow the child to whatever public school they attend, he said. And the era of funding charter school construction through annual appropriations in the state budget — primarily through the dwindling Public Education Capital Outlay — must end.

“It’s competing with other dollars that, to me, should be for universities and community colleges and schools in other areas,” he said.

Senate bill 376, approved this morning by the panel in charge of education spending, would require school districts to give charter schools a proportionate share of their local property tax revenue reserved for capital projects.

But the bill sponsor, David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said the proposal might not be viable unless districts have a way to raise additional money. He’s heard from districts, like Lake County, which grew rapidly over the past two decades. They spend nearly all their construction revenue paying off bonds, and have none left to spend on new construction.

Charter schools offer these districts a way to house new students without spending local construction funds. But there’s a catch-22. If districts had to share local revenue with those charters, they might run low on money they need to pay off debts from past construction.

Spencer Pylant, representing the Pasco County school system, told the committee his district spends $4 of every $5 it raises for construction through property taxes paying down its debt. It spends the remaining revenue on building repairs, leaving nothing to share with charters.

The bill is now due for a hearing at the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, where Simmons pledged to revive, in some form, a proposal to increase school districts’ taxing authority, which previously fell be the wayside.  Democrats who supported the measure today, including Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said those changes would be essential to keep their support.

Simmons said he wants to end the facilities funding “crisis” unfolding around the state, and ensure districts have revenue they needed to give charter schools a fair share.

“We’re not raising taxes, but we’re providing local governments the flexibility in dealing with these issues,” he said.

Erika Donalds, a charter school parent, Collier County School Board member and professional accountant, told the Senate panel that if school districts received additional taxing authority from the Legislature, they would almost certainly use it, whether they truly needed the money or not.

Representing the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, a conservative-leaning alternative to the state’s more-established school boards association, Donalds said the state should do a study to find the true cost of school construction.

That way, she said, lawmakers can decide which districts overspend on construction, which ones face a legitimate fiscal squeeze, and how state building regulations, which are more stringent for districts than for charter schools, affect what constitutes fair funding.

Simmons is trying to thread a tough political needle. He’s trying to help cash-strapped districts, end the systemic short-changing of charters, and produce a bill that passes muster with a tax-averse House (which may turn to gambling legislation as a source of charter school funding).

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, had a suggestion: Simplify.

The solution, he said, might be to start paying for school buildings with the state’s main funding formula, the Florida Education Finance Program. Lawmakers could boost funding in the FEFP, rather than negotiate separate funding for school facilities, which amounts to a rounding error in a state budget that tops $80 billion a year.

That could avoid debates about local taxes and offer fair state funding to all public schools. Money in the FEFP, Lee noted, already follows students wherever they attend.

“I just think this has become too complicated,” Lee said. “I think there are simpler solutions to this.”