Florida Politics

Florida Senate proposes reforming charter schools’ capital funding

Exterior of the Downtown Doral Charter Elementary School, Feb. 12, 2015, while under construction.
Exterior of the Downtown Doral Charter Elementary School, Feb. 12, 2015, while under construction. wmichot@miamiherald.com

Responding to a controversial plan fast-tracked by Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, a Florida Senate subcommittee is proposing its own reforms to how much school districts can spend on capital costs and what access the state’s 650 charter schools should have to state and local dollars.

But the Senate’s ideas don’t go so far in charter schools’ favor as those included in Fresen’s proposal, which was advanced by the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

Rather, the counter-proposal unveiled Thursday by the Senate’s education budget chairman, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, could actually limit charter schools’ potential funding, while still reining in how much districts spend on projects.

We want to weight it in favor of those charter schools who have a social conscience.

State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville

It would crackdown on what Gaetz called charter school “real-estate schemes” by prohibiting schools from using taxpayer dollars on “private enrichment” projects.

It also does away with what Senate staff called a “fairly tricky, involved” funding formula that decides how much capital money individual charter schools get and, instead, would prioritize money to schools that help primarily impoverished students or those with disabilities.

“We felt that we would try to add our values to the discussion,” Gaetz said Thursday, adding that his plan “re-syncs the values” originally intended for charter schools of offering quality, alternative schools in low-income neighborhoods or innovative programs not offered in traditional public schools.

“I think to some extent we may have gotten away from that a little bit,” said Gaetz, a former superintendent of the Okaloosa County School District. “We want to weight it in favor of those charter schools who have a social conscience.”

It’s unclear how the proposal might fare in the House, where a few key members — including Fresen — have close ties to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed. (A member of Gaetz’s committee, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, also has connections; he and his wife run a charter school.)

The House was in session Thursday morning when the Senate education budget committee first heard — and then unanimously approved — Gaetz’s proposal, so Fresen told the Herald/Times he had yet to look at it in detail as of early Thursday afternoon.

But Fresen, the House education budget chairman, said he was glad it had “the two thematic components” that are the crux of Fresen’s plan and he anticipates negotiations in the coming weeks.

“It opens the conversation for some sustainable solutions for capital-outlay funding for charter schools and the concept of discussing, or reining in, facilities’ construction costs,” Fresen said.

The House and Senate plans each have one more committee stop to clear before they could reach the chamber floors.

Anything that has to do with assurances and safeguards with the money, I’m fine with that.

State Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami

Fresen’s plan would force districts to share a portion of local property tax dollars with eligible charter schools, while changing the eligibility requirements for charter schools to receive both state and local money toward capital costs.

Gaetz said his proposal would “not invade” districts’ local tax dollars, but it does have many of the same reforms limiting districts’ spending ability.

It also maintains charter schools’ existing eligibility criteria to receive state funds, which Fresen’s proposal changes and somewhat relaxes. His would reduce the amount of years charter schools have to exist (from three to two), but adds criteria for school grades unless a school serves mostly low-income children.

Under the Senate plan, a charter school would not be eligible for capital funding unless the school’s leaders signed a sworn statement that the money won’t go toward “private enrichment” construction or repairs.

Specifically, school administrators would have to “annually certify under oath that the funds will be used solely and exclusively” on facilities that are owned by either a government entity, a non-profit organization or a person that is “not an affiliated party of the charter school.”

Gaetz said that would prevent people from profiteering off charter schools and the property the schools buy or lease. In some cases, the people involved in those transactions are one in the same.

This provision could be a sticking point in the House, although lawmakers have said they’re open to adding safeguards on taxpayer money that goes to charter schools.

“Anything that has to do with assurances and safeguards with the money, I’m fine with that,” Fresen said. “I’ve always wanted to raise the bar.”

In regards to districts’ spending of capital funds, Gaetz’s plan — like Fresen’s — would subject all revenue sources that districts use for construction and maintenance to a state-imposed cap on per-student-station costs, or what it takes to build the space for one student.

Both proposals also have sanctions: Districts would forfeit state capital-outlay dollars for the next three years if they exceed the spending limit on a project.

The state would study and re-set what the caps on per-student-station costs should be, with potentially some new flexibility based on the type of structure being built — such as classrooms versus more costly group areas, like gyms and cafeterias.

Fresen has said the current caps aren’t enforceable and are based off “artificially high” figures set after the 2005 hurricane season, when construction costs were inflated.

He prompted the Legislature’s discussion about districts’ capital spending in January, when he laid out the case for limiting capital dollars to districts and traditional schools because of what he describes as excessive over-spending on capital projects — an assertion school superintendents dispute.

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.

He argues that districts would have enough money to address their capital needs if they spent their dollars more wisely, and that charter schools should have a portion of local tax funding, out of equity for all students in the public school system.

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

Related stories from Miami Herald