Florida charter schools seek new approach to facilities funding

FORT LAUDERDALE — Recent cuts to facilities funding have Florida charter school officials looking for a new approach.

Nearly 20 years since state law first allowed them, even the state’s most established charters can’t predict from one year to the next how much funding they’ll receive for their buildings.

During a meeting of charter school administrators and district officials from around the state on Monday, Vickie Marble, the principal of Student Leadership Academy in Venice, said she was frustrated the state hadn’t found a stable funding source.

“It’s like you’re trying to get a mortgage for your house, and it’s 15 years later, and you still don’t have your house,” she said, adding: “We have to continue to go the Legislature and beg for our supper.”

This year, lawmakers increased operating funds for public schools across the board. Richard Moreno, who helps finance charter schools with Building Hope, said for charters, that increase was largely offset by a decline in capital funding. Districts around the state are now raising teacher salaries, which adds pressure for charter schools to do the same.

“The net effect is almost zero growth, however, your costs went up,” he said.

The issue has become a perennial — and often distorted — topic of debate in Tallahassee. State Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, told the gathering that charter school advocates should push for a funding formula that ensures charters receive a certain amount of funding per student. That way, funding wouldn’t erode as charter school enrollment grows.

The House passed such a proposal last year, but it faced stiff opposition from school districts because it could have funded charter facilities, at least in part, through districts’ property tax revenue.  While some districts share funding or help certain charters with facilities, most charters rely on annual appropriations set by the Legislature, which are often contested by charter school opponents.

Jane Watt, who chairs the board of Marco Island Academy in Collier County, said the decline in capital funding meant her school had to stretch its budget in other areas. Her school had to drop plans to hire a sought-after science teacher.

“I feel like it affects the kids, and that’s the bottom line for me,” she said.

Robert Runcie, the superintendent of schools from Broward County, co-chairs the annual district-charter meetings, which are hosted by the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools. He’s said repeatedly that he agrees the state needs to find a stable revenue source to fund charters. But he said it shouldn’t come from district coffers, which are already short on construction funds.

“If you do that, you’re just hurting one group of kids to benefit another,” he said.

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