TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Half of a two-part effort to bridge differences between charter schools and traditional public schools over construction funding was approved Tuesday by a Senate committee --- but the other measure was left to an uncertain future.
The Senate Education Committee voted 6-2 to advance legislation (SB 376) that would require school districts to share construction funds raised by local taxes with charter schools, which are public schools generally run by third parties including corporations or non-profit organizations.
But the committee put off a vote on another proposal (SB 604) that would allow school districts to increase the local property taxes that provide the construction money.
School districts have been wary of being required to provide local construction funds for charter schools, but have long pushed for the authority to increase the property taxes back to where they were before being lowered in 2008 and 2009. Boards were allowed to redirect construction funds to operations in 2009.
Sen. David Simmons, who chairs the Senate education budget-writing committee, said he still hopes to move forward with both pieces of legislation. The vote on the tax legislation was delayed because some members wanted to require increases to receive either supermajority approval of school boards or approval in referendums.
"I believe it would have passed, but it would have been very narrow," said Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. He said some senators likely would have voted for it only as a courtesy to him.
School districts, though, said the tax bill was needed for school districts to be able to fund their current commitments and new charter projects. Ruth Melton, with for the Florida School Boards Association, told the committee her organization was not opposed to sharing funds with charter schools.
"But it would not be possible to do or to carry out without this (tax) bill," she said.
Simmons said he still planned to push the taxing language, perhaps even formally folding it into the charter construction bill. And he appeared to take preemptive steps during the meeting to counter a possible political problem for Republicans opposed to raising taxes.
"This does not require and this is not a tax increase," Simmons said. "And it's because there is nothing other than simply authorizing local control over a local issue."
The bill could face an uphill battle in the House, though. Last year, House Republicans pushed a measure cracking down on alleged overspending on construction by school districts, though the bill did not become law.
The charter school provisions are controversial in their own right. Supporters of charters say that, as public schools, they're entitled to tax dollars for construction just like any other public school.
"Students who attend public charter schools are the last minority group whom we find it acceptable to openly discriminate against when making funding decisions," said Shawn Frost, president of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, a conservative group.
Opponents argue against diverting dollars away from traditional public schools and raise concerns about sending tax dollars to private charter-school management companies.
Karen Zaremba a teacher from Lantana, said traditional public schools tend to be older and have more maintenance problems, along with the lingering effects of staff cuts after the financial crisis.
"This (bill) would dedicate more money to the charter schools, which are new, and less to the public schools that have delayed repairs to the facilities," she said.
The charter school bill also includes some provisions aimed at making sure that private providers don't use construction funds for "self-enrichment" by barring charter schools from using the funds to renovate or build facilities owned by people or companies affiliated with the schools.