Legislature delivers good news on school construction, maintenance

Good news from the Florida Legislature!

In some final budget wrangling, the House and Senate settled their differences and agreed on increased state funding for building and repairs of Florida’s public schools.

In the final agreement, public schools will get more $100 million, a marked increase over the past three years. The state’s 67 school districts will get $50 million for repairs and maintenance. Additionally, seven small school districts, which have difficulty amassing construction funds, will receive $59.7 million for facilities projects.

Why is this important?

It’s important because many of the existing public school buildings have extensive maintenance and repair needs that pose health and safety concerns, including leaky roofs, faulty plumbing, outdated electrical and computer wiring and inadequate restroom facilities.

The agreement called for charter schools to get $50 million as well, but shortly before midnight Monday their funding was bumped up to $75 million. While the last-minute windfall showed their political might, they still felt the sting of their funding being reduced from the $100 million they had in the House budget and from the $91 million they received last year.

It’s surprising when you contrast this with the split in funding over the past few years. While traditional public schools drastically outnumber charter schools, the amount of state funding going to charter schools the last few years left decaying public schools in the dust. In fact, most school districts haven’t received state funding since 2011.

For many years state funds for school construction, repair and maintenance came from a large pot of money called the Public Education Capital Outlay trust fund. These PECO funds come from state taxes collected on cable TV and land-line telephone bills. As you can imagine, these funds have been shrinking as we increasingly move to cell phones and other television service providers.

Opponents of using PECO funds for charter schools have been vocal. They accuse charter school advocates of theft of tax dollars from our traditional public schools and claim the Legislature has diverted nearly all the money it distributes for school construction, maintenance and repair to charter schools, leaving virtually none for public schools.

They’re not far off.

During the last three years, the Legislature has allocated $200 million to charter schools and a paltry fraction of that to traditional public schools. In 2013 alone, charters received $91 million out of $111 million in available PECO dollars. It’s worth noting that charters make up less than 15 percent of the state’s 4,000+ public schools.

Opponents would also argue that PECO funds have been inappropriately given to build and repair schools that the public doesn’t even own while the needs of the public school buildings were ignored.

Charter school supporters counter that the public school districts have an additional funding source that they don’t.

Public schools do have a secondary source of capital outlay dollars from a portion of locally collected property taxes — but those dollars are declining through a combination of decreased property values and from the state manipulating the millage rate. While the counties levy the public school millage, it is the Legislature that annually adjusts the rate.

Prior to 2007, the Legislature set the millage rate at 2 mills, meaning $2 per $1,000 of taxable value. By 2009 the Legislature had lowered that rate to 1.5 mills.

That might have made sense during the housing bubble, when the economy was humming and property values were high. But when the bubble burst that half a mill drop was a huge hit to public schools.

So at the same time the Legislature limits the millage the school districts can collect, they have also been diverting hundreds of millions from public school infrastructure to charter schools.

In fact, public schools have been dealt a quintuple whammy — taxable property values decreased, millage rates were reduced by the Legislature, PECO dollars continue to shrink, dwindling PECO dollars were increasingly diverted to charter schools and the debt service on previous construction was eating up more of their capital outlay costs.

Charter schools were originally sold to policymakers as a way to save the state money while offering choice — a win/win situation. But after they got their foot in the door, they got a little greedy and demanded parity with traditional public schools, both in classroom and construction dollars. A sympathetic Legislature complied.

Clearly our primary responsibility should be to properly fund the assets owned by Florida taxpayers. We have a fiduciary and moral duty to ensure that all of our school buildings are structurally sound, technologically updated, properly maintained and safe for our school children.

What sense does it make to let our infrastructure crumble while limited dollars are diverted?

While there’s still a great inequity in PECO funding between public and charter schools when figured in dollars per student, at least it’s a start.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.

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