Daytona Beach News Journal
Volusia fears bill might cut into school building funds
By: Dustin Wyatt
3/3/2016

Leslie LaRue remembers standing outside in 100-degree heat, beseeching voters to support a tax increase for the school district and children in Volusia County.

All that sweat and labor paid off three years ago with the approval of a half-cent sales tax. Planning is underway to build five new schools and expand technology and improve security throughout the district, among other things.

But now the DeLand mother fears losing part of that money — which was sold to voters in support of specific projects — through proposed legislation that would divert money targeted for school construction to charter schools.

It’s like a bait-and-switch program at the state level,” LaRue said. I’m flabbergasted.

Lawmakers behind the move saydistricts are spending more than they should on new schools — as much as $1.2 billion too much over a nine-year period — and the legislation would crack down on that by imposing penalties for districts that exceed state price limits. The House version of the bill takes things a step further by shifting tax money to charter schools.

School officials throughout Florida say lawmakers' figures don't tell the whole story, and they are fighting the bills — to the brink of tears in some cases.

Saralee Morrissey, the director of planning for theVolusia school district, called it another top-down approach of state government telling school districts how to do everything.

This legislation adversely impacts all school districts, but it will absolutely hurt Volusia’s plans for technology and construction, she said. The half-cent was going to take this district forward, and they are taking that away from us. It's wrong on so many different levels.I could start crying.

CHARTER SCHOOLS BENEFIT

School choice advocates say charter schools deserve equal treatment. Funding for the state's 600 charter schools, which served about 10 percent of Florida's 2.7 million students during 2014-15, has historically lagged behind its traditional counterparts.

Charter schools shouldn’t be treated like stepsisters, said Bill Mattox, director of the J. Stanley Marshall Center for Educational Options at the James Madison Institute, a nonpartisan group that supports school choice. Some people see them as a threat, but they are another way for students to get a good education. If our first and foremost interest is in improving the needs of children, then I don’t think we should look at them (charter schools) as an alien force, we should welcome them into the discussion.

Yet changes to the way charter schools are funded isn't something school officials throughout Florida are willing to welcome with open arms. Funded by taxpayers and operated by private companies, charter schools compete for the same students as traditional public schools but don't have to abide by the hundreds of statutes and regulations that bind a School Board.

Dissenters don't want money taken out of their budgets and pushed to charter schools, some of which have proven to be shaky investments, shuttering due to money woes or academic failure. Volusia has had eight charters close since the state first started allowing them two decades ago, the same number that are currently open.

Local school officials take concerns a step further: charter schools here don't even need money for construction.

The reality is that the charter schools we have are new, said Morrissey. What in the world is their capital need? What on earth do they have to repair, replace or renovate? How can a five-year-old charter school's needs take precedence over my 50-year-old school that is crumbling like Pierson Elementary School?

Pierson Elementary is the first school slated to be replaced with the voter-approved half-cent sales tax. Morrissey said a new school would come regardless of what happens with this bill, but stricter rules regarding how much the district can spend would change how the final product could look.

They are telling us what we have to build, she added. What if I want to build a performing arts center (at a school) and we are going to fund it out of our sales tax? Why can't I do that? If I'm supposed to be providing a superior education, and if our children are supposed to reach their highest potential … I can not do it with this bill. There is no way.

There are two charters in Flagler County and if the school district is forced to share a portion of their tax revenue with charter schools, based upon enrollment, it anticipates losing $300,000, said Chief Financial Officer Tom Tant, adding that the money would come from funds the district uses to pay off debt.

“Now for the state to take more money and give it to the charter schools leaves us with less money,” he said.

The situation could grow more contentious if a proposed amendment makes it onto the November ballot. That measure would set up a statewide agency with the power to authorize new charter schools, instead of leaving that decision to local districts. That would mean districts could find themselves spending more money on schools they had no role in approving.

EQUITABLE FUNDING

Both the Senate and the House versions of the bill hold districts accountable for the money they spend for new schools and renovations. State law requires that school districts spend $21,615 per student for an elementary school, $23,341 for a middle school and $30,318 for a high school.

If you look at some of the schools that we have built, said Rep. David Santiago, R-Deltona, we can definitely do better with the taxpayers dollars.

For example, Volusia exceeded the limit on five of its last six construction projects. Superintendent Tom Russell said in a letter to lawmakers that it was impossible not to, adding that the formula is unfair because it uses the consumer price index — based on items like the cost of food, clothing and housing — instead of the construction cost index, which is based on the cost of labor and materials.The model also doesn't consider the extra cost that goes into adding amenities such as an auditorium or the extra fees related to extending a water or sewer line to a school.

Some lawmakers aren't bending to the excuses.

The whole purpose is to try and get the best value for tax payers dollars, said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, a former superintendent who filed the companion bill. I’ve overseen the building on many schools, classrooms, new gymnasiums, and one thing I've learned is that it’s very important to squeeze down the cost of architecturally and engineering services so that you can get the best value for the taxpayers dollars and at the same time get the quality that students deserve.

Gaetz's bill was on the Senate calendar for a vote this week. The House version has yet to be scheduled for a vote.The House and Senate have to pass identical bills before the governor can sign them into law, so more work may have to be done before the bills are finalized.

At least one local lawmaker is backing off support for the House bill after hearing more specifics from school officials.

Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach, voted for the House version in an education subcommittee, agreeing that school districts are spending too much on construction and that charter schools deserve more funding since they provide educational opportunities for many students. But Costello — whose wife, Linda, is a School Board member — said he has reservations about the bill after speaking with Russell. He plans to vote no when it comes to the floor.

He said by phone Monday: I want to support the local School Board.

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