South Florida district sues state over charter school law

Sweeping legislation that equalized funding for Florida’s charter schools is officially under legal attack.

The Palm Beach County School Board filed suit late this afternoon in Leon County Circuit Court. The lawsuit argues House bill 7069, signed earlier this year by Gov. Rick Scott, unconstitutionally forces districts to share local property tax revenue with charters.

At least 14 districts around the state had been trying to join forces to challenge the new law. Several school boards — including in Manatee, Sarasota and Collier Counties — have explicitly decided not to join the lawsuit. Palm Beach County decided this week not to wait for the other districts to organize their litigation.

The case does not take aim at the massive, 278-page legislation in its entirety. It only targets portions that require districts to share property tax proceeds with charters. Before the law passed, sharing that money was optional, and only a handful of districts did. The Palm Beach school district would have to share up to $8 million with 33 charters this school year. With more charters expected to open, officials expect that total to rise. That, the suit argues, could frustrate the district’s efforts to borrow money or build new schools.

To reduce the potential for damage to credit ratings, the law allows districts to set aside revenue they need to make payments on existing debt. It then requires them to divide the remaining money equally, on a per-student basis, with charters that qualify.

In its legal complaint, the Palm Beach school district argues sharing the money with charters against its will robs the school board of its ability to control where the money goes.  That, it contends, violates its constitutional power to operate and supervise all free public schools within its boundaries. Once the Capital Outlay Millage funds are distributed to charter schools, the charter schools have broad discretion concerning the use of these funds and the Board’s role is limited to ensuring that charter schools use the funds for one of the general purposes specified under § 1013.62(4). The Board has no authority to otherwise supervise or control the use of the funds or to ensure that the funds are used in an efficient manner and for necessary purposes. Since the Board lacks meaningful control over the discretionary ad valorem tax revenues distributed to charter schools, there are no means for the residents of Palm Beach County, who elect the Board, to hold charter schools accountable for the use of their tax dollars.

Shawn Frost, a charter school parent and Indian River County School Board member, blasted the lawsuit on Twitter. Frost, who is among the founders of a new association of conservative school board members, argued most districts shortchanged charter school students before the new law passed.

Erika Donalds, a like-minded Collier County school board member who helped found a charter school, also weighed in.

The Palm Beach district posted a series of videos on its Twitter feed explaining its objections to the law. In one, Mike Burke, the district’s chief financial officer, says many charter schools lease privately owned buildings. As a result, he contends, there’s no guarantee buildings financed with public funds remain in public hands.

The Palm Beach Post reported the school board made the unexpected decision this week to leave the consortium of districts organizing the lawsuit. Going it alone could bring a speedier resolution. It also raises the cost. The district now has $150,000 set aside for the lawsuit. That figure could draw attention from Republican legislators who have already criticized the use of district dollars to sue the state.

It’s not yet clear whether other school boards that voted to challenge the law will join this lawsuit or launch a separate, potentially broader, case. The Palm Beach school district has been uniquely aggressive fighting charters in court. It recently faced a setback in one of those legal battles after the Florida Supreme Court declined its appeal in a lawsuit challenging the state’s charter school appeal system.

The district’s lead attorney is Jon Mills. He was an architect of public education standards added to Florida’s constitution in a 1998 referendum. He also helped spearhead a lawsuit challenging the adequacy of the state’s public education system, but later backed out of the case. He’s an attorney with Boeis, Schiller and Flexner, whose chairman has become a key backer of civil rights-related education lawsuits elsewhere in the country.

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