Florida school superintendents are irate over lawmaker allegations that their districts have misspent millions of dollars on construction projects over the past decade.
The district leaders contend state House leaders misrepresented their spending by “cherry picking” data to make the school systems look bad to taxpayers.
A Jan. 21 House presentation that indicated districts far exceeded state spending caps, was “not accurate, and the methodology used in the report to calculate ... costs is flawed, thereby the resulting conclusions are not sound,” Orange County Superintendent Barbara Jenkins wrote to lawmakers on behalf of the state superintendents association.
Some officials suggested the House members might have created a misleading document as a prelude to shifting local tax collections for school construction projects from districts to charter schools. Lawmakers have fruitlessly floated that idea for several years.
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“It causes one to question if the Florida House Education Appropriations Subcommittee is now trying to manufacture figures to justify more defunding of public schools in order to fund charter schools,” Citrus County School Board chairman Thomas Kennedy wrote in a blog post to constituents.
He and others noted that House Education Appropriations chairman Erik Fresen, who made the report, and Appropriations chairman Richard Corcoran, whose committee heard it, both have family ties to charter schools. Neither lawmaker immediately responded Tuesday when asked to comment on the superintendents’ statements.
Fresen complained at the January hearing of a “very disturbing pattern” of construction overspending by districts. Corcoran said districts had practiced “absolutely horrible stewardship of the taxpayers dollars” and alleged they had “robbed” public coffers of money that could have been better spent elsewhere.
Hillsborough County officials pulled together a spreadsheet detailing their district’s major construction projects since 1999. They showed that over the years the district has come in under the state cap for each “student station” by an accumulated $635 million.
“I think it’s best to be honest and fair and complete in disclosure,” said Jim Hamilton, a former Hillsborough top administrator who consults for the district.
If the state wants to shift tax money, he said, “Let that play out. It ought to stand on its own merits.”
School districts shouldn’t be denigrated to make the argument, Hamilton said.
Senate Education Appropriations chairman Don Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County superintendent, said he is listening to complaints.
“To every superintendent who has said, ‘This is unfair, this is inaccurate,’ my response has been, ‘Provide me with the facts,’ ” Gaetz said.
Cutting infrastructure costs is an important goal, he said, so long as quality remains. He expected the Senate to ask “hard questions” about that effort, as well as the idea of having capital dollars “follow the student,” whether it’s to a regular public school or a charter school.
“We don’t provide funds for empty chairs,” Gaetz said.
At the same time, he said, the zeal to push this concept is not coming from his side of the Capitol.
Senators are paying close attention to the House discussion, Gaetz said. But he hasn’t heard any of them “suggest any legislation or any major budget alterations as a consequence of the presentation in the House.”
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @jeffsolochek.