Charter school facilities funding plan returns in Florida House

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A new legislative proposal could revive a long-simmering and often-distorted debate over how Florida funds charter school facilities.

A proposed rewrite of a school construction bill (HB 873 by Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah) would guarantee most charters in the state an annual funding amount, pegged to the cost of school construction.

If the Legislature doesn’t provide enough annual funding to cover that amount, most charters would receive a share of their local school district’s property tax revenue to make up the difference.

Right now, charter schools rely on annual appropriations from the state budget to pay for facilities and other capital costs. The funding has dwindled over time, even as the number of charter schools in the state has increased.

During the 2011-12 school year, 372 charter schools split $55.2 million in capital outlay funding. This year, 535 schools are splitting an even $50 million. The resulting erosion has put pressure on schools trying to make lease payments or keep up with mortgages, prompting some charter advocates to warn the situation has reached a “desperate point.”

The revised bill, set to be taken up later this week by the House Appropriations Committee, would set a funding benchmark equal to one-fortieth of the estimated per-student cost of school construction.

Charter schools with good academic ratings, clean financial audits, and at least two years in operation would receive a share of local property tax revenue that would allow them to make up the gap between the amount of money they receive in the state budget and either the funding benchmark or the amount their local school district raises in per-student construction revenue from local property taxes — whichever is less.

The House has proposed setting aside $90 million for charter school construction in next year’s budget, and legislative staff estimate qualifying charters would receive an additional $62.9 million in local money if its plans are approved.

Right now, Florida’s school districts collect nearly $2.2 billion in local property tax revenue that, with few exceptions, is not shared with charters.

As a result, they receive substantially more funding per student than charters, but their construction costs also tend to be higher, in part because they’re subject to stricter building regulations. A separate bill in play this session would give school districts more construction flexibility.

In previous years, school districts have warned measures steering local property tax revenue to charter schools could hurt their credit ratings. Many took on long-term debt to cover the cost of school construction during Florida’s previous population booms.

The state Senate has not yet matched the House’s proposal, but Education Appropriations Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has indicated his committee plans at least to study the issue.