Charter schools didn’t cause your late-summer air conditioning woes

Florida students head back to school in the heat of August. A Tampa Bay Times column notes some of them suffer in sweltering buildings with worn-out air conditioners.

This problem has many causes. Temperatures routinely break 90 degrees. School officials disagree on the best way to manage the heat. And, for a variety of reasons we’ll get to in a minute, the district is strapped for building maintenance money.

The Times points to a different culprit: Charter schools.

The nutshell version is that the bulk of Hillsborough’s more than 230 public schools are older buildings with cooling units that have reached the end of their usefulness. Your Florida Legislature keeps funneling public school dollars into private charter schools, so money to fix or replace failing systems is disappearing.

Fun fact: Hillsborough schools receive $145 million less from the state funds for routine maintenance than seven years ago. Thank your Legislature for that.

The basis for this “fun fact” is not clear. The state budget seven years ago allocated $122.1 million for building maintenance at non-charter public schools. That’s total, statewide. The Hillsborough County school district received $8.7 million of that. (See page 30.) The Times does not explain how the district could have lost $145 million in state maintenance funding since 2010. (Update: See below.)

In addition, as we’ve unceasingly pointed out, state funding accounts for a tiny fraction of most school districts’ construction budgets. Seven years ago, the Hillsborough district brought in just over $102 million in local property tax funding for capital projects. Last year, that number climbed above $125 million.

Charter schools are a small variable in this equation. Last year, charters in Hillsborough County received $5 million in state construction funding. This year, they might get a little more. Legislative analysts predict a new law would require the district to share about $1.9 million in local property tax funding with charters. That’s about 3 percent of its largest revenue source for building maintenance.

None of this diminishes the fiscal strain the district faces. Its small stream of state funding has shrunk almost by half. Debt accumulated during previous population booms eats into its limited local funding. And in the run-up to the Great Recession, it lost a quarter of its property taxing authority for school construction and maintenance.

Republicans in Tallahassee have different ideas about what to do about all this. Some have proposed restoring part of that old taxing authority. Others have taken a harder line against tax increases. They’ve argued district spending deserves more scrutiny, and that lawmakers should pare back state regulations that drive up districts’ building costs. Both schools of thought deserve an honest debate.

This has taken on more urgency of late. Districts like Hillsborough are starting to grow again, and building new schools isn’t cheap.

District officials have found charter schools might be part of the solution. They’re understandably conflicted, though, now that the law requires them to share local revenue with charters.

But it’s clear charter schools aren’t the cause of anyone’s late-summer air conditioning woes.

Update: A recent news article in the Times provides the basis for the $145 million figure above.

One source of maintenance funding, the Public Education Capital Outlay program, known as PECO, has dropped dramatically in recent years. Hillsborough received $164 million from the program from 2002 to 2009, but took in $19 million over the last seven years, Eakins said.

That seems accurate. However, the column’s wording suggests this year’s state maintenance funding is $145 million lower than what the district received seven years ago. In reality, it’s a few million dollars lower.

There are two main reasons state school maintenance money has eroded. First, the state has nearly maxed out its credit card funded by a gross receipts tax on utilities and phone lines. That revenue source has been largely flat in recent years. Second, public school maintenance competes with facilities projects at colleges and universities. Unlike school districts, higher learning institutions don’t have access to property taxes that pay for building needs.

But that affects charter schools, too. State capital outlay appropriations for charters are also lower, not higher, than seven years ago. And charter schools have grown faster than district schools over that time period.