Less than a mile from the state Capitol, a former steakhouse shows little evidence that it was once part of a movement to change Florida’s schools.
It was on this location nearly two decades ago that the leader of a prominent Tallahassee church put together one of the state’s first charter schools. The space where customers grazed the salad bar became student desks. The parking lot became home to two portables used for classrooms.
The only trace of C.K. Steele/LeRoy Collins Community Charter Middle School is a sign in the parking lot. It closed in 2014.
But over the course of the preceding decade, the school received nearly $540,000 to help with capital purchases under a program enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature and supported by the last three governors. Bethel Missionary Baptist Church owned the building when the school opened and it still does.
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So what did get taxpayers get back? Not much. Some televisions, computers and other surplus supplies deemed unusable by the Leon County school district.
The story is repeated across the state: Charter schools, which are public schools run by private groups, have received more than $760 million from state taxpayers since 2000 according to an Associated Press analysis of state Department of Education records. Schools can use the money for construction costs, rent payments, buses and even property insurance.
More capital money has gone to charter schools in Miami-Dade than any other county: about $179 million.
Yet charter schools in 30 districts have wound up closing after receiving as much as $70 million combined in such funding, the AP’s analysis showed. In all, more than $7.5 million went to almost 20 Miami-Dade charter schools that eventually shut their doors.
Taxpayers usually can’t recover the capital money invested in those schools because most of it has been spent on rent or leasing costs. The Department of Education reported it has taken back just $133,000 in the last three years from schools that closed.
“That’s definitely a concern as a taxpayer,” said Jaime Torrens, chief facilities officer for Miami-Dade schools. “If a school closes, whatever property was built with these public dollars, it doesn’t come back to the public. It remains with the owner of property.”
There have been cases where the district recuperated equipment left behind after a charter school closed. When the School for Integrated Academics and Technology abruptly closed its doors last year — after receiving $1.9 in state capital funding — Miami-Dade recovered computers, smart boards and furniture. When that happens, the district usually redistributes the equipment to other charter schools.
In contrast, when Balere Language Academy shut down amid allegations it threw raunchy after-hours parties in the cafeteria, $4,500 in equipment went missing. The school reported the items were stolen, according to Miami-Dade officials.
Democratic lawmakers have criticized the expenditures, especially since Florida legislators have curtailed construction money for traditional public schools in recent years.
The AP’s analysis was derived from department data that lists charter schools that received money set aside in the annual state budget. That data was compared with schools that the state listed as closed. The state listed as closed some schools that had merged with others; the AP did not count money that went to those schools in tallying the total spent on now-defunct schools.
Schools that got money include Miami’s Liberty City Charter, set up with great fanfare by Jeb Bush shortly before he ran for governor in 1998. Liberty City closed after eight years because of severe financial problems, but not before receiving $1.1 million in state capital funds.
Today, the building stands empty in a quiet enclave of El Portal that backs up to humming Interstate 95. In its last years on the campus, Liberty City Charter paid about $165,000 a year in rent, according to school district documents. Property records show the building — which sports fresh, faint green paint and a sign that says “Principal’s Office” across the front door — remains in private hands.
Bush, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, has remained a champion of charter school schools and vouchers. His campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Charter schools, which proponents see as a way for some families to move their children into schools better suited to their needs, have grown in popularity since they were authorized in the ’90s. There are currently more than 650 charter schools statewide, teaching more than 250,000 students. In Miami-Dade 15 percent of students attend charter schools, a number that has quadrupled in the last decade, according to district budget documents.
These schools receive money from school districts to pay for day-to-day expenses like salaries.
But the growth of charter schools has triggered a tug-of-war in the Legislature over how much money should also be given them to pay for capital needs such as classrooms and transportation. The capital money directed to charter schools reached a high of $90 million two years ago but dropped to just under $48 million for the current budget year.
In contrast, public school districts got no capital money in the previous three years. This year, Miami-Dade — which has a multibillion-dollar real estate portfolio — got a mere $6 million to pay for capital needs, Torrens said.
“Basically we don’t receive any capital construction money at all from the state,” Torrens said.
Charter school backers say they need state help because, unlike school districts, they can’t rely on local property taxes to help pay capital expenses. Some legislators have tried to change that in recent years but the proposals have been defeated.
“Banks don’t usually lend to charter schools,” said Lynn Norman-Teck, executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance. “You can’t walk into Bank of America and say, ‘I have a good idea and I may have 100 kids show up.’
“This capital outlay is the lifeline for some of these charter schools, especially the small independent ones.”
But school districts argue they are also squeezed for construction money. Their capital budgets are largely tied up in debt, state funds have dwindled and the districts have had their taxing authority reduced. The Legislature caps how much school districts can levy, and during the recession, the state gradually lowered the tax rate for capital budgets.
In Miami-Dade the reduction means about $130 million less flows to school construction budgets, according to Torrens.
School districts often end up turning to bonds to pay for maintenance and construction needs. In 2012, Miami-Dade voters approved a $1.2 billion bond to fix up crumbling schools. Last year, Broward County passed an $800 million bond to meet its capital needs.
“Where the state has promised to fund education, now the local citizens have to pay it,” said Miami-Dade schools treasurer Leo Fernandez.
Charter schools receive capital dollars based on a formula tied to student enrollment and grade level. Charter schools must be open three years to be eligible, although schools tied to established charter schools can get money sooner.
Charter school advocates contend, however, that the amount given to each school is not large enough to buy buildings or land, especially in urban areas with expensive real estate.
Rep. Manny Diaz, a Miami Republican who is pushing a charter school-friendly bill for the upcoming session, says that if “dollars are connected to the child,” then it is worthwhile. The solution to preventing taxpayers from losing money, he contends, is to tighten up requirements for charter school operators at the start.
Rev. R.B. Holmes, the Tallahassee minister behind the charter school in the state capital, said his school closed so his church could focus on its existing private school. He said his church wound up subsidizing the charter school well beyond the $540,000 taxpayers put into it. A church-run veterans center uses the school’s former building.
“If the state gave money to build a building from the ground up, then I think the state should own that building,” Holmes said. “But we never got enough money to build a doghouse.”
Gary Fineout and Terry Spencer, reporting for The Associated Press, produced this story in collaboration with Miami Herald staff writer Christina Veiga who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org