Broward school district may pay $1.5 million tab for charter schools’ errors

A state of Florida audit that uncovered sloppy paperwork at some Broward schools could force the district to absorb a $1.7 million budget penalty — even though it was charter schools that had the most serious audit findings.

The audit focused on how schools account for student enrollment and the number of students in specialized programs, such as classes for non-English speakers. Among the 15 district schools that were audited, there were some errors identified, but only enough to merit a roughly $200,000 state fine. For the five charter schools that were looked at, auditors found enough violations to merit a total fine of $1.5 million.

But there’s a catch when it comes to the charters’ fine: because charters have smaller budgets compared to the school district, the charters involved are probably unable to pay the state penalty in one lump sum. So Broward expects it will have to pay its own $200,000 fine, plus the money the charters owe.

The state funds charters and traditional schools with the same pot of money, which is administered by the school districts. So Florida can just subtract the whole $1.7 million fine from Broward’s total, and then let the district and its charters sort out the details.

Broward then plans to recover the $1.5 million debt from the charters by working out some sort of ongoing payment plan.

“Are they going to pay it back in 12 months, 24 months, 36 months?” said Broward’s own chief auditor, Patrick Reilly. “It’ll have to be a negotiated thing.”

The charter schools named in the audit include Somerset Academy, North University High, and two campuses of Mavericks High. The district schools cited in the audit include Henry D. Perry Middle School, Northeast High School, and Tedder Elementary.

There is still an appeals process available for the audit, so it’s possible that the district schools or the charters (or both) will get their fines reduced.

But if the fines stay the same, the issue is likely to become another sore point in the relationship between Broward’s school district and the area’s ever-expanding number of charter operators. Broward, like other school districts, has long complained that state law doesn’t do enough to hold charters accountable.

“Let them work out a payment plan with the state ... at no time should we be paying somebody’s fine out of our general funds,” Broward School Board member Robin Bartleman complained during a Wednesday board meeting.

If Broward ends up fronting the money for the charter fines, the district should look into charging interest, said Board Member Donna Korn.

“We’re acting, in essence, as a bank,” Korn said.

During the upcoming legislative session, Broward plans to lobby for beefed-up regulations when it comes to charter schools — for example, a prohibition on charter companies with a checkered past being allowed to open additional schools. It’s unclear how much traction Broward’s efforts will get, however, as Florida’s Legislature is strongly pro-charter, and has generally been reluctant to regulate the industry.

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