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Saturday, February 18, 2012

Charter schools seek more public money

By Kathleen McGrory and Scott Hiaasen, The Miami Herald

TALLAHASSEE A legislative plan to give charter schools a cut of local school districts' construction money would steer millions of additional dollars to large charter-school networks that are already sitting on tens of millions of dollars in cash, records show.

The charter-school industry is lobbying hard to gain a share of tax dollars raised by school districts to cover the construction and maintenance costs of traditional public schools — tax revenue that has dropped dramatically in recent years with plummeting real-estate values.

School districts say the proposal could cost them as much as $140 million a year statewide and cripple their ability to repair aging buildings and pay debts for past construction. But charter school operators say the lesser funding for their students is unfair, and argue that withholding construction money has stifled charter schools' growth.

Broward County Public Schools Many charter schools collect more tax dollars than they spend, and sock away the unspent cash. The Doral Academy charter-school network, with five Miami-Dade schools, had net assets of $13.6 million last year, much of it cash, records show.

The Doral Academy network is one of four large South Florida charter-school chains run by Academica, the state's largest charter school operator. These four school networks — the Doral, Mater, Somerset and Pinecrest academies — had combined assets of more than $83 million last year, records show. This money is held by nonprofits that own the schools, which are managed by Academica, a for-profit company based in South Miami.

These schools could stand to gain millions more every year from the construction tax dollars, which would be distributed on a per-student basis. For example, the Doral, Mater, Somerset and Pinecrest academies would receive an additional $14.5 million from the Miami-Dade school district this year alone under the proposal.

Lynn Norman Teck, spokeswoman for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, said charters should not be cut out of construction funding because some schools have been financially savvy.

"Their reserves are for a rainy day," Teck said.

Andreina Figueroa, chairwoman of the Somerset Academy charter-school network, said her schools put money away to safeguard against funding cuts. The 31 schools in Miami-Dade and Broward have more than 10,000 students and $25 million in assets, records show.

In contrast, many smaller, independent charters don't have cash reserves, and struggle to pay for maintenance and construction under the current financing rules, Teck said.

The proposed legislation would allow charters to spend the new tax dollars on construction and related expenses, and facility leases.

Many South Florida charters lease their school buildings from companies with ties to their for-profit managers.

Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, a sponsor of the proposal, said charter schools receive less money per student than traditional public schools. While some schools have large cash reserves, "the mom-and-pops have nothing," he said.

But opponents say the measure will mainly benefit the large charter-school operators with high enrollment and robust balance sheets.

"These are not the mom-and-pop charter schools that are pushing for this. These are the big management companies," said Georgia Slack, a lobbyist for the Broward County School District.

The fate of the proposal remains uncertain. A Senate education committee approved Wise's bill. But the sponsor in the House of Representatives was unable to tack on similar language to the House version of the bill last week. Observers believe the provision will resurface in a later draft.

Slack said the proposal would cost the Broward school system at least $20 million a year.

The school districts say they can't afford to lose the tax money, most of which goes not to construction costs but to pay the debt on bonds.

Nearly one-third of Florida's school districts use all of their construction taxes to pay down debt.

Overall, the capital budget of the Broward school district dropped more than 70 percent in five years, as sinking property values dragged down tax revenues.

The Broward school system, which has $1.8 billion in capital needs, can't buy new computers for classrooms and has stopped "cosmetic painting," Slack said.

The Fitch bond-rating agency has warned that diverting local tax money to charters would put a significant strain on school districts — a hint that districts' credit ratings could suffer.

Charter school operators have little sympathy for school districts, which both oversee charter schools and compete with them for students.

Facility costs are also a major burden for charter schools. Several South Florida charters have paid more than 25 percent of their revenue toward lease costs — and schools tend to pay more when the management company has ties to the landlord, a Herald review found last year. In 2010, 30 percent of Broward's charter schools reported a net loss, with some schools citing lease costs as the main reason.

But critics say the proposal will increase public spending on facilities that would remain in private hands — even after a charter school has shut down. In Florida, about one in four charter schools shuts down, usually for financial reasons, records show,0,291049.story

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