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Pembroke Pines calls for more funding for its charter schools

Pembroke Pines officials, frustrated that their prized city-run charter schools are operating in the red, continued to call for additional funding on Monday — while blasting Broward’s School Board for an “evil” policy of not sharing property tax dollars.

The property tax money has become a focus of Pines leaders as their five charter schools face a combined annual deficit of roughly $2 million. Severe drops in state funding (cuts that also wounded traditional public schools) are the main reason that the Pines charters are struggling financially. Still, Pines leaders insist the School Board has the ability to instantly fill the charters’ budget hole if it would only share funding.

“This is something that could be fixed tomorrow down at the Broward County School Board,” said Pines City Commissioner Jay Schwartz at a public town hall meeting attended by hundreds of charter school parents.

Unlike a similar meeting two weeks ago, School Board members were not on hand to defend the district. In previous statements, School Board members have said the money in dispute was never promised to Pines — those dollars have always been earmarked exclusively for the construction and building repair needs of traditional public schools.

The Pines charters, like charters across the state, receive their own source of capital improvement dollars, in a form of funding that is off-limits to traditional public schools. Both charters and regular public schools have seen their capital funding drop significantly during the recession, as state lawmakers sliced the education budget.

Broward school district leaders have said they are open to sharing capital improvement dollars with the Pines charters if the Legislature restores the higher property tax funding the district used to receive. With its current reduced funding, the district argues it can’t afford to share with charters.

Several state lawmakers attended Monday’s meeting, with some, such as state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, suggesting the charters’ budget shortfall solution might come in carving out a special designation for city-run charters within state law. Mostly, though, lawmakers listened as Pines leaders (and some charter parents) said their schools are worthy of additional public investment. The schools regularly receive “A” grades from the state, and graduate 98 percent of their high school seniors.

“This school is a shining star, it is a beacon, and I would very much hate for it to just one day not be there for us,” said Pines charter parent Edwin Melendez.

In the lead-up to Monday’s meeting, the anger of Pines leaders at the school district could be seen on the public Facebook page of City Commissioner Angelo Castillo, who accused the district of deliberately sabotaging the Pines charters because they are so high-performing, and therefore represent a threat to district schools.

“This is about the school district’s hatred for all charter schools — in particular any high-performing charter school like ours — because we make them look like s---t,” Castillo wrote.

In another post, Castillo wrote “Out with evil. In with fairness and true educational improvement. Fund every child equally now.”

Castillo used the word “evil” again several times in addressing the gathered parents Monday night.

Pines leaders’ calls for fairness contrasts with education guidelines that (in a variety of ways) treat charter and traditional public schools differently. Frequently, that uneven playing field works to charters’ advantage.

For example: Both charters and traditional schools are bound by Florida’s state class-size requirements, but charters have their class average calculated on a more lenient school wide basis. Traditional school districts are subjected to a more rigorous class-by-class analysis — if a child moves into the district in October, it throws the numbers out of whack.

Charters also enjoy more lenient construction rules when building schools, because — unlike traditional schools — they don’t have to double as emergency evacuation facilities. Charters also admit far fewer students with severe disabilities, even though both charters and traditional schools are governed by anti-discrimination laws and the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Those disabled students typically cost more money to educate.

Schwartz disputed that the Pines charters have any special privileges, saying they operate largely under the same guidelines as regular schools.

“There is no advantage,” Schwartz said. “We are not asking for any advantage. We are asking for equality.”

An earlier version of this story mischaracterized a quote from Pembroke Pines City Commissioner Jay Schwartz. The story has been updated to more accurately reflect his comment.