The city-run charter schools of Pembroke Pines are academically successful and extraordinarily popular with parents. They’re also just about broke, according to city officials.
After years of deep education cuts by state lawmakers in Tallahassee, the Pines charters are dipping into their financial reserves these days just to balance the budget. In an effort to help stabilize the schools’ finances, city officials have been asking parents for voluntary donations, and looking to boost corporate partnerships.
The city has also been pointing the finger at Broward County’s school district, which some Pines leaders accuse of hogging all of the school capital improvement dollars created by local property taxes. If Pines charters received a portion of that money, the city argues, the schools could balance their budget and no longer have to worry about the possibility of being forced to close because of budget woes.
“The main thing is we want Broward County to share” the property tax money, said Aner Gonzalez, a Pembroke Pines assistant city manager responsible for overseeing the five-school charter system.
Though Gonzalez said the schools aren’t at risk of closing right away, he cautions that the charters are “approaching a crisis” by using reserves — essentially, a rainy-day savings account — to make up for operating deficits. The schools used $1.3 million of their reserves to balance the books this year, reducing the total reserves to just over $3 million out of a nearly $48 million operating budget. The city operates two elementary schools, two K-8 schools, and a high school — collectively serving about 5,600 students.
In September, the Pines charters sent a letter to parents that scolded the Broward school district for how it spends its money. The letter argued the city’s charters are “not receiving ‘ITS FAIR SHARE.”’
Letters like that, combined with public statements by Pines officials, appear to have stoked anger among some charter school parents. But the pot of money that Pines leaders say should be shared with their charter system has always been earmarked for traditional Broward public schools.
“There was never a promise that these dollars were coming,” said Broward School Board Member Donna Korn. “To do a kind of finger-pointing ‘you kept something from us,’ well, that structure was never in place.”
Pembroke Pines’ charters already get some capital funding — the schools receive millions each year from the state earmarked exclusively for charters’ construction and technology needs. Traditional public schools are shut out from that money.
When it comes to Broward’s public school capital improvement dollars funded by local property taxes, the law allows school districts to share that money with charters at their “discretion,” but Broward — which had this funding source dramatically reduced by state lawmakers in recent years — has not shared this money with any charters, be they Pembroke Pines’ city-run charters or any of the dozens of privately-run charters in the county.
In fact, Broward’s property-tax fund was so decimated by the Legislature’s recent cuts that the district was forced to remove $1.8 billion in capital projects from its own five-year plan. Some of Broward’s older schools are in desperate need of physical repair — a dramatic contrast to the generally solid condition of Pembroke Pines charters, which were only constructed about a decade or so ago.
“Roofs are not falling apart,” Pines’ Gonzalez acknowledged. “No, we don’t have leaks or ACs that are not being fixed.”
Broward School Board members, meanwhile, received a report only weeks ago that identified leaky ceilings, unusable playing fields, and other decrepit conditions at Hallandale High School and Fort Lauderdale’s Stranahan High School.
At least some of those glaring needs have since been addressed, but others remain, according to School Board Member Katherine Leach. At Northeast High School, a school built in the 1950s, rainwater routinely forms into a pool on the roof of one hallway, and later drips into nearby classrooms for days on end. A temporary tarp has covered the roof of the gym since Hurricane Wilma, which struck South Florida in 2005.
Leach was one of several board members to attend a recent town hall meeting at Pembroke Pines’ charter high school. Nearly 1,000 parents gathered there, and though there was talk of lobbying state lawmakers for more school funding, there was also some criticism of the School Board — particularly its refusal to share those capital improvement dollars that some Pines leaders are intently focused on.
“We were in a brand new facility, in what seemed to be a brand new cafeteria,” Leach said. “They’re trying to get blood from a stone, and we just don’t have any more to give.”
The recent trend of declining state funding is at the core of tight budgets for both public and charter schools, as Florida lawmakers have greatly reduced both per-student funding and capital-improvement funding for both types of schools. But given the long history of tense relations between Pembroke Pines politicians and the school district, it is not entirely surprising that some Pines leaders would make it a point to blame Broward’s School Board.
The city’s charter system, after all, was born in the late 1990s out of Pembroke Pines’ frustration with the slow pace of school construction. Public schools in Pembroke Pines — at that time America’s third-fastest growing city — were severely crowded, and the school district struggled to quickly address the problem.
Then Pines-mayor Alex Fekete in 1997 even publicly stated he wanted to shoot Frank Petruzielo, who was then the superintendent of Broward Schools. Fekete later called his remark “regrettable.”
Soon after, the Pines charters were born — the schools became one of the few city-run charters in Florida. Most charters (public schools that operate separate from traditional school districts) are privately run.
Early on, some questioned whether Pembroke Pines was biting off more than it could chew financially.
What was absolutely and immediately clear, however, was the intense level of parent demand. The Pines charters boasted a student waiting list from the day they opened, and today that waiting list numbers about 13,000.
Academically, the schools enjoy a stellar reputation, with routine “A” grades from the state and 98 percent of high school students graduating — far above the state average. About 93 percent of those graduates go on to college.
But the testy relationship between the city and the School Board never quite healed. Pembroke Pines spent the last five years fighting for a share of the Broward district’s capital improvement dollars. Pines even took the matter to court — and lost, repeatedly. After losing at the trial court level, the city lost again earlier this month on appeal, as a three-court panel ruled that Broward is in no way obligated to give part of that money to the city.
Now, with the charters facing budget deficits, parents with children at the schools are growing increasingly concerned. Some are rallying to push state lawmakers for additional school funding, but others are focusing their anger at the School Board.
“Broward County Public Schools refuses to give our schools the fair share of funds that our children deserve,” said parent Sophia Tenn, who is also a Pines charter teacher. “This is the root of the problem.”
The Broward School Board member who represents Pembroke Pines, Patricia Good, insists she has no ax to grind against the Pines charters — in fact, both of her children attended those schools from kindergarten through high school. One child still does.
Good said she would be willing to share some of Broward’s capital improvement dollars with the Pines charters, provided that state lawmakers restore that funding to the level it was prior to recent budget cuts. But without an assist from Tallahassee, Good said there’s little Broward can do for the charters.
“If we can go to Tallahassee with one voice, asking for dollars for all of our schools, I think we would have a better chance of obtaining additional funding,” Good said.
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