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Monday, January 21, 2013

“It confounds me that the State Legislature believes it’s OK for taxpayer dollars to line the pockets of for-profit corporations at the expense of the children who attend our public schools.”

From the Palm Beach Post, by Jason Schultz

Some Palm Beach County School District officials are incensed at a state proposal to offer once again millions of dollars next year for capital improvements at charter schools — and none at traditional public schools. 

That plan, those officials say, has set up a political fight for the legislative session that begins in March. School officials in Palm Beach County have estimated their buildings and grounds have $1.4 billion in capital improvement needs over the next 10 years. 

"It’s absurd,” said Chuck Shaw, county school board chairman. “I don’t know where the state seems to think we’re supposed to come up with the money to maintain our schools.” 

Advocates of the funding point out that public schools can levy property taxes to raise money for their capital improvements and that charter schools cannot. 

Charter schools are alternatives to traditional public schools. They receive taxpayer funding but are freed from meeting some state requirements — such as in curriculum, hiring and classroom sizes — in exchange for targeting specific classroom results from their students. They often are run by private companies, some of them for-profit. 

The state Department of Education last week gave a Florida Senate subcommittee a report on the state Board of Education’s requested budget for next year. The budget includes a request for about $64 million for capital improvements at charter schools. Last year charters received about $55 million for school construction. 

If approved, that budget would mark the third straight year the state has given capital outlay money to charter schools but no capital funding to districts to build and maintain traditional public schools, said Vern Pickup-Crawford, the county school district’s state lobbyist. 

School board member Frank Barbieri was as upset as Shaw at the proposal and called it proof “the State Legislature is hell-bent on the privatization of education.” 

“It consistently allows charter schools to play by a different — and much more favorable — set of rules than traditional public schools despite charter schools using the same — and shrinking — pool of taxpayer dollars allocated to public education,” Barbieri said. 

“It confounds me that the State Legislature believes it’s OK for taxpayer dollars to line the pockets of for-profit corporations at the expense of the children who attend our public schools.” 

Palm Beach County’s estimated $1.4 billion in capital improvement needs over the next 10 years range from repairs, for safety and to make schools more accessible to people with disabilities, to rebuilding old schools such as Addison Mizner Elementary in Boca Raton and to building new high schools in Riviera Beach and suburban Boynton Beach. 

Also, in the wake of the school massacre in Newtown, Conn., that killed 26 people, district police are doing a school-by-school review of security needs. The district expects to the review, which is expected to be finished this month, to recommend “significant” amounts of spending on school safety. 

The state’s budget request reflects the Board of Education’s priorities to assist charter schools, said Pam Stewart, chancellor of public schools for the state Department of Education. Stewart also pointed out that individual school districts can levy local individual property taxes of $1.50 for every $1,000 of taxable value to raise money for their local capital needs. 

Districts statewide raised about $2 billion from local property taxes for their capital improvements last year and received another $401 million in sales tax revenues that could be used for capital improvements, said Tiffany Cowie, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. 

“Unlike public school districts, charter schools are not taxing authorities and may not levy taxes,” Cowie said. 

Last year charter schools tried unsuccessfully to get a state bill passed to require districts to give charter schools some of that local property tax revenue as well. 

Shaw said leaving public districts to cover all their construction needs out of property taxes wouldn’t work in Palm Beach County. The district had to borrow so much money to build new schools over the last decade to keep up with growth and state-mandated class size limits that almost all of that property tax money now goes to repay bond debts for those existing schools, he said. 

Allowing the district to levy more property tax could solve some of the capital needs of traditional schools, Shaw said. Districts used to be able to levy $2 per $1,000 of taxable value until 2010. The school board has made lobbying for the return of that lost 50 cents a top priority this legislative session. 

The issue of capital funding for charter and traditional public schools “will be the crux of one of the hottest education issues in the coming session,” Crawford said.

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