Op-Ed

Public school districts overspend, then blame the charter schools

Fresen
Fresen

What if I told you that a government agency had been constructing overpriced buildings in violation of state law? How would you feel if you knew that this same agency had been pushing the Legislature to raise taxes so it could spend even more money on buildings?

Would you expect broad bipartisan support for holding the agency accountable?

What actually happened was something else altogether.

In Florida, we fund the capital cost (construction and maintenance) of schools separately from their operating costs so that school districts never have to choose between buildings and students. Districts manage and spend their construction money subject only to a generous statutory spending cap. In 2015, county-run school districts had access to $3.2 billion in capital funding.

For years, the districts have been telling the Legislature this $3.2 billion wasn’t enough. They asked for the authority to raise property taxes to pay for additional construction. But when the House looked into the issue, we discovered something startling. By studying data taken from reports filed by the school districts themselves, we learned the they overspent on school construction to the tune of $1.2 billion in excess of that generous statutory cap over nine years.

A school construction project that is less than the cap is still likely to have a per-square-foot cost far greater than what anyone in the private sector would pay for a similar construction project. Despite that, the vast majority of school districts fail to follow the law.

In 2014, the actual average cost on a per-student basis exceeded the cap by 11.3 in elementary schools, 67.6 in middle schools, and 37 in high schools. Look at the data, which includes the cost of every school construction project over the last year.

Rather than acknowledge responsibility and previous errors, the school districts employed an old politician’s trick: When you’re wrong, attack. Overpriced school construction? Misuse of taxpayer money? Not the issue. With their usual, unquestioning devotees, teachers’ unions, legislators allied with them and newspapers in lockstep behind them, the districts explained everything that has happened is the fault of charter schools.

But that makes no sense.

Florida has 2.7 million students enrolled in 4,270 public schools. There are two kinds of public schools: county-run schools and charter schools. Both are public, meaning they are free, open to all students and supported by taxpayer dollars. In Florida, there are about six county-run schools for every one charter school.

As stated before, in 2015, Florida’s county-run school districts had access to $3.2 billion for capital projects. Charter schools had access to $50 million. If you apply those totals over the number of students enrolled in the schools, it translates to $200 per student in a charter school and $1,300 per student in a county-run school; a more than 6-to-1 funding advantage for county-run schools that was recently affirmed by PolitiFact.

In other words, there is no rational argument to be made that charter schools are taking capital money away from county-run schools or that charter funding caused school districts to build overpriced schools and additions. But those arguments do reflect the underlying problem.

For too long, school districts have become comfortable overspending taxpayer money, to the benefit of contractors and the detriment of the taxpayer. This has become the norm. Districts spend as liberally as they want, and when they run out of money or have obligated it all to debt service, they feed newspapers pictures of leaky roofs and broken windows and ask the Legislature to raise taxes to give them more taxpayer money.

That mindset is irresponsible and indefensible. But all they have to do is trot out a favorite boogeyman like “charter schools” or “vouchers” and watch as newspapers write boilerplate stories about how Republicans are “attacking public education.” They deflect attention from any accusation of abuse by attacking the motives of their accusers.

But the facts speak for themselves. The question now is what to do with those facts. Will school districts and their enablers continue to blame others for their failings, or will they step up, like several superintendents have and take responsibility for these actions to Florida’s taxpayers? Based on what I’ve seen, I think I know what the answer will be. However, this is an instance when I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong.

State. Rep. Erik Fresen is chairman of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

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