No legislative relief for Broward’s aging school buildings

With money for teacher raises and an overall state funding boost of $93 million, the recent state legislative session was in many ways a good one for Broward schools — with one glaring exception.

When the Legislature wrapped up its business earlier this month, Broward left Tallahassee without any help in tackling its billions of dollars worth of school renovation and technology needs. Not only that, but there appears to be little hope that Florida’s staunchly anti-tax Legislature will pitch in next year either.

The Legislature was decidedly more generous with charter schools: The budget approved by lawmakers sets aside roughly $91 million for charter school construction statewide.

Broward relies primarily on local property tax dollars to pay for school building improvements. School district leaders, who are struggling with leaky school roofs, unusable playing fields, and other dramatic signs of physical decay, had pinned their hopes on persuading state lawmakers to restore the higher property tax rates that the district used to levy on homeowners. Prior to 2008, Broward collected $2 for every $1,000 in taxable value from homeowners for a fund that specifically pays for capital improvement projects.

In recent years, however, the Legislature reduced the amount Broward could collect to $1.50 for every $1,000 of taxable value, a move that gave tax relief to homeowners but left the school district’s five-year improvement plan in disarray. The change, which came at the same time that real estate values plummeted, forced Broward to cancel roughly $1.8 billion in planned projects.

The school district’s history of misspending and corruption only exacerbated the problem: When times were good and Broward had the full $2, it wasted millions on questionable construction projects that were either poorly executed or manipulated to benefit School Board members and their campaign contributors. Most of the district’s capital budget, shrunk by the state budget cuts, is now spent on paying down the debt from those past projects, leaving little room for addressing today’s pressing needs.

Broward’s budget for capital items is so lean that when it comes to buying new school buses and classroom computers (two purchases that fall under that category), the district is considering financing the roughly $26 million bill, as opposed to purchasing the equipment outright.

“We won’t even be able to buy the buses if we don’t finance it,” Broward Chief Financial Officer I. Benjamin Leong told School Board members at a workshop Tuesday. “It’s all a balancing act. The choices are all bad.”

Broward has nearly 40 schools that need roof repairs, at a total cost of more than $41 million. For now, the district has only $10 million to spend on the problem.

During this year’s session, Broward had hoped to persuade lawmakers that raising the property tax levy to $2 wasn’t really a tax increase, but rather a “restoration” of a rate that had existed since 1980. But lawmakers didn’t bite, school district lobbyist Georgia Slack said, and they instead suggested that Broward ask county voters for money through either a bond issue or sales tax increase.

“The basic answer that you got from the leadership in the Legislature was, ‘Go to the people, let the people decide,’ ” Slack told board members Tuesday.

Broward’s school district has been quietly exploring the possibility of a bond issue, though it has not yet announced any target date to take the referendum before voters. In the meantime, the district — which is led by a relatively new superintendent and mostly new board members — has been working to make its construction practices more ethical and professional, in hopes of distancing itself from past problems.

Board members continued on that path Tuesday, suggesting that the district could do a better job analyzing which schools have the most urgent repair needs — that way, the district’s limited pot of money is spent more wisely.

Superintendent Robert Runcie agreed and said he would work to develop a “very clear and transparent process” that gives priority to repair projects based on objective criteria. In the past, Runcie said, projects were moved along based on the emergency of the moment, or because certain past promises had been made.

“We need to move beyond that in a way where the community can trust what we’re doing,” Runcie said.

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