A Florida district looks to charter schools to help alleviate overcrowding

School district officials in Lake County, Fla. are grappling with a growing student population.

Nearly half of their schools are at capacity. Future projections do not look much better. They estimate 17 out of 42 schools will be over capacity by 2022.

The population in this sprawling district just outside Orlando is growing rapidly. But school officials do not have an ample funding source to build new schools that are sorely needed. They estimate the district will grow by nearly 1,400 students by 2022.

As a result, the district has found an unlikely relief valve: Charter schools. They’re public schools, run by private organizations. While they receive the same state operating funds as other public schools, they typically finance their own construction. That can make them a boon for cash-strapped, rapidly growing districts in Central Florida. The district superintendent in Osceola County made a similar observation last year.

Most Florida charter schools receive capital funding from the state, but not their local districts. Some key lawmakers want to change that. Some would also like to give districts greater authority to raise property taxes, or find other ways to relieve their construction costs.

The Lake County School Board’s top priority is to build a K-8 school in the southern part of the county to relieve Windy Hill and Sawgrass Bay Elementary, which are over capacity. But the district won’t have money to build that school before 2021.

The school board rejected the idea of taking on more debt in favor of a “pay-as-you-go” policy of building new schools as it can afford to do so. The district spends $30 million a year paying off debt from a previous bond issue, which eats up most of its construction funding.

Funding for the district’s capital needs comes from three sources: local property taxes, impact fees and a one-cent sales tax, which it splits three ways with other local governments in the county.

With uncertainty about how they will fund and construct new schools in the future, school officials say the partnerships it has formed with several charter schools proves vital in preventing further overcrowding.

The district approved a new Pinecrest Academy charter school in Minneola, which is opening in the fall of this year. It negotiated an agreement with the  Florida Charter Educational Foundation for another school. The district initially rejected the application from the Florida Charter Educational Foundation because the organization did not have a cost budgeted for land for a school, according to School Board Chairman Marc Dodd. The issue was however recently rectified.

During Monday’s School Board workshop, the district also had a discussion on a proposal to expand Minneola Charter Elementary to a K-8.

Right now, there are four conversion charters and three charter schools in Lake County. In total, 3,520 students attend the conversion charters while 1,586 students attend the three charter schools, according to district documents.  The district pays debt service on its conversion charter schools.

Private schools may help absorb the growth, too. In Lake County, 1,585 students have been awarded tax credit scholarships this fall in two state programs that serve students with special or financial needs. If those students were to be absorbed back into the school system, it would certainly be difficult for the district to accommodate them, Dodd said.

“As a whole our district is strapped for student seats,” said Dodd. “It would be potentially challenging.”

If charter school officials maintain academic and financial stability at their schools, they can serve an important purpose in helping accommodate growth in the district, Dodd said.

“The worst-case scenario is we approve a school and they close and we have no seats for (students),” he said.

School Board member and former chairman Bill Mathias agreed.

“The partnership between private and charter schools definitely benefits the district from the standpoint of capacity,” he said. “In any case, if we were to lose a charter there is no doubt that it would strain capacity more in some areas than in others.”

Dodd said charter schools have advantages over public schools when it comes to building schools.

“They are able to construct a school faster because they have more flexible building codes,” he said.

However, the district  has some reservations. Milestones Community Charter School and Humanities and Fine Arts Charter closed in Lake County in 2015 because of poor academic performance.

“While charter schools offer competition and choice, I still have reservations,” said Mathias. “It still seems there are good ones and not good ones, and there is no in between. If they are quality charters, we welcome that partnership. We are fortunate in Lake County that there are charters that exist that are quality driven and serving our students.”

While school choice options are helping the district absorb growth in the short term, officials say they’re still looking for a long-term solution that would allow them to build new schools.

“It becomes very difficult to plan on a long-term basis because of the volatility of decision-making,” Dodd said. “We don’t know if next year the Lake County Commission will slash impact fees and our plan to build a school goes away.”

He said he was optimistic about Senate bill 604, which would increase districts’ local taxing authority. He was, however, concerned about dividing that potential increase in funding with charter schools.

“How much do we share?” Dodd said. “It is hard to plan for that funding source either. The only sure bet is we have sales tax dollars rolling in and that is not enough to build schools.”

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