The ABCs of charter schools
The city of Aventura, home to two charter schools, has voted to take legal action against the Miami-Dade County school district to get a share of funding raised by the recently passed property tax referendum benefiting teachers.
In another fight on the behalf of charter schools, Aventura argues teachers in its schools are entitled to $800,000, their equitable share of about $211 million raised for teacher pay by a new property tax approved by Miami-Dade voters in November. The school district maintains those dollars are for teachers in traditional public schools.
Add into the mix personal and professional conflicts. Aventura Mayor Enid Weisman is Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s longtime mentor and colleague, a relationship that began when she hired him as a young teacher in 1990. Aventura Vice Mayor Denise Landman works in the school district’s communications department.
Weisman and Landman, who have recused themselves, were absent last week when the Aventura City Commission voted 5-0 to retain a law firm and initiate a governmental conflict resolution procedure as required by Florida law. Commissioners say Aventura School of Excellence, the kindergarten through eighth grade school known as ACES, and Don Soffer Aventura High School, which will open in August, should be the exceptions to the school board’s rule.
“I agree with why the referendum is not being shared with all of the charter schools,” Landman told the Miami Herald. “I also believe that our charter school is an exception or an anomaly because ... it’s a municipal charter school.”
“The building is built by city, owned by city,” she added. “There are a lot of things taxpayers contribute to, and that’s why I believe there is an exception.”
Landman was on maternity leave from July through December and says she did not work on the referendum for the school district.
Aventura first sent a letter to school board chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman in October before the midterm election. It offered the city’s support for the referendum on the condition that ACES receives its share of funding, should the tax pass, out of “basic fairness” because Aventura taxpayers provide $66 million in tax funds to the school board.
The letter also noted that Aventura provided police protection at Aventura Waterways K-8, located outside of its city limits, in the weeks following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school shooting at no cost to the school board. Aventura does not have any traditional public schools within its city limits.
“It is time for the school board to step up now, do the right thing, and honor the city’s request for fair treatment concerning the equitable distribution of the referendum revenue,” the letter read. A second letter was sent to Hantman in February.
“I think it’s sad,” Hantman told the Miami Herald. “I never thought it was going to get to this point, but it did.”
Referring to Landman’s comment, “I don’t know what is the exception. I really don’t know why it would be an exception.”
Carvalho responded to Aventura in a February 7 letter that funds generated from the referendum were “clearly intended for the exclusive benefit of M-DCPS.” He also explained that funding for teachers had already been committed through collective bargaining with the United Teachers of Dade.
Carvalho did not respond to requests for comment. A school district spokeswoman wrote in a statement that while the district does not comment on pending litigation, “it has been explicitly clear as to the intended purpose of the referendum as approved by the voters of Miami-Dade.”
Members of UTD were in attendance when Aventura held its vote. In a statement, UTD President Karla Hernandez-Mats also said it was clear that referendum funds were only for teachers in traditional public schools, calling Aventura’s actions “gaslighting at best.”
“[Charter schools] are the same entities that have led the charge to gut public education for the past 24 years,” she said. “As a former district administrator, Ms. Weisman is well aware of this, and it is shameful that she would try to have her community believe otherwise.” Weisman has also done work for the district’s collective bargaining team.
“We hope that Aventura residents will oppose their taxes being spent on a frivolous lawsuit to punish our underfunded public school system,” Hernandez-Mats added.
Weisman stood by Carvalho and Hernandez-Mats at the first press conference for the referendum in October. Weisman hired Carvalho as a science teacher at Miami Jackson Senior High. The pair later opened William H. Turner Technical Arts High School and, after Carvalho became superintendent, he tapped Weisman as his human resources chief.
Weisman did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Aventura’s last hope to get funding before taking legal action against the school district rested with the Florida Legislature. An effort to retroactively compel Miami-Dade to share referendum dollars with charters failed. The law now says that school districts must share equitable funding from referendums approved by voters on or after July 1, 2019.
Aventura’s city commission voted to retain Alan Kluger, an Aventura resident, and his Miami-based firm. Kluger is charging the city hourly rates of $300 for attorneys and $75 for paralegals.
The school district asked Greenberg Traurig for a legal opinion on the issue. The firm warned the school board on December 12 that the county’s charter schools could object to using referendum dollars only for traditional public schools. It determined that the board does not have an obligation to share funds with charter schools because “additional” funds levied by voters are not listed as a source of funding for charter schools in Florida law. That legal opinion was shared with Aventura.
Aventura steered away from retaining the law firm that represented four charter schools that successfully sued the Indian River County School Board over a disproportionate share of dollars from a 2012 referendum. That firm also represents Charter Schools USA, which Aventura contracts for educational services for ACES and Don Soffer Aventura High, and could pose a conflict should Charter Schools USA sue on the behalf of other charter schools in Miami-Dade.
Aventura is expected to pay $306,000 in fees to Charter Schools USA in the 2019-20 school year.
About two-thirds of ACES’ nearly $10 million budget goes to paying 104 employees. Salaries for the school’s 88 teachers range from $40,500 for a rookie teacher and increase 3% each year to $95,440.90 for a teacher with 30 years’ experience.
According to data obtained by the Florida Department of Education, Miami-Dade’s 1,830 charter school teachers make an average salary of $44,995 and a median salary of $43,854. The average salary for all Miami-Dade teachers, traditional and charter, is about $51,000 and the median is around $46,000.
Aventura isn’t the only municipality running its own charter school. Miami Shores has Doctors Charter School and Hialeah has the City of Hialeah Educational Academy, or COHEA. Both schools serve grades 6-12. While Doctors Charter has no management company, COHEA’s educational services are provided by Academica, another charter school giant with deep roots in Miami.
Academica schools circulated critical fliers about the referendum to parents before the November vote and launched letter writing campaigns earlier this year to lobby the school district for a share of referendum dollars.
Carvalho has pledged to give all charter schools in Miami-Dade County increased funding for safety and security because referendum dollars allocated for that category will free up the school district’s funding from the state. Those dollars, Carvalho has said, will be shared with charter schools to help fulfill the legal requirement to have an armed guard at every school.