Florida Politics

House bill would limit schools’ construction spending

With resounding opposition from Democrats and school officials, Republican lawmakers in the Florida House are fast-tracking a proposal to significantly change how public school districts use taxpayer money to fund construction projects, while making it easier for charter schools to get capital dollars.

Education budget committee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, is spearheading the measure primarily to rein in the state’s 67 county school districts, which he argues have “glaringly and grossly” overspent on construction projects over the past 10 years.

“I don’t think school districts, as a norm, waste money on construction projects, but the numbers bear out … in certain instances, there have been unwise business decisions made on certain projects,” Fresen said.

His substitute version of a bill that deals with facilities dollars (HB 873) would limit districts’ spending on capital costs — even if the district is using local revenue, such as a sales tax approved by county voters. Districts would be punished for going over the state-imposed cap; they’d forfeit the next three years of capital-outlay dollars from the state if they exceed it.

It would also force districts to allocate some of their local property tax to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed and don’t typically enjoy such local aid. Furthermore, charter schools would be eligible for state dollars sooner under revised eligibility criteria.

The Republican-heavy Appropriations Committee approved the revised version of HB 873 mostly along party lines on Tuesday, with Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, joining Republicans in support. Other Democrats and school officials urged Republicans to take a more comprehensive look at capital funding to both charter and traditional public schools.

“We really need to tap the brakes on this, and I don’t know why it’s moving so quickly,” said Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach.“I think we need to take the time to understand the issues and get it right.”

The bill goes to the Education Committee next, before it could go to the House floor.

There is one charter school for about every six traditional public schools in Florida. Charter school advocates — with support from some Republican lawmakers — are clamoring for an equal amount of capital dollars, although the money they’ve received in recent years has far outweighed what traditional public schools have received.

Several school superintendents spoke in defense of their districts Tuesday. They said Fresen’s conclusions didn’t fairly weigh extenuating circumstances, such as costly repairs needed for aging facilities, expansions built to accommodate growing student populations or the use of local revenue voters approved as state aid declined.

“At the risk of sounding combative … we have gone to great lengths to be very conservative with construction of our schools,” said Kurt Browning, superintendent of Pasco County Schools.

The state already has a cap on costs “per student station,” the space required for each individual student. But Fresen said it has “no teeth” and is “already artificially high” because it was set after the 2005 hurricane season when construction costs were inflated.

Even so, Browning and other superintendents said that formula isn’t realistic for building large structures, such as gymnasiums, or for factoring in land or utility costs, which can vary depending on location and specific needs.

“It’s difficult to build schools today ... and abide by an archaic cap,” Browning said.

Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas told lawmakers that if his Panhandle district had to set aside a portion of its local property tax just for charter schools, he would have to choose between maintaining school buildings or buying new buses each year.

“Most school districts don’t have money just lying around, just looking for a place to be spent,” he said.

Fresen said he’s heard excuses and pleas from districts for years, and he argues that districts would have enough money to address their capital needs if they spent their dollars more wisely.

He first laid out the case for his proposal in late January, igniting a feud last week with the school superintendents’ association.

On Tuesday, Fresen sought to “dispel the myths” and said his results were not “somehow skewed or somehow the result of some political motivation,” as some critics allege.

The data speaks for itself, he said.

Fresen found 30 percent of school construction projects since 2006 went over the state cap on per-student station costs and about $891 million of that excess was on construction for new schools alone.

Fresen — who works for an architecture firm that has helped to build charter schools, and whose his brother-in-law runs Academica, the state’s largest charter school management company — told House members his bill is “not a political statement” nor a “personal attack” on public schools.

“This is not some shot across the bow from the Legislature to school districts,” he said. Rather, he said he aims to “de-politicize” the conversation about traditional schools versus charter schools.

“The best way to de-politicize something is to put blinders on it, create a formula that’s going to be sustainable, and let the formula work,” Fresen said.

But Democrats questioned why Fresen was proposing such a significant overhaul halfway through the session and without support from the districts themselves.

“This type of language will make it more of a hardship for districts,” said House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach.

Senate education budget chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, plans to hold a hearing Thursday to discuss Fresen’s idea.

“We believe that the House has raised a legitimate issue,” Gaetz told the Herald/Times. “There may be some dispute about how one calculates cost — what’s included, what’s excluded — but we believe the Senate needs to have a constructive response, and we’re working on one.”

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark