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.