Lawmakers have questions about a rural district’s budget after a charter school takeover

Livi Stanford

Rep. Manny Diaz

When a charter school organization runs all the local public schools, what does that mean for the district? Key members of the Florida Legislature are grappling with that question after the unprecedented takeover of a tiny North Florida district last spring.

The Jefferson County School Board approved the Somerset Academy conversion with a unanimous vote. The charter school organization, based in South Florida, officially took over July 1 and rehired many district teachers and brought in others from Georgia and Jacksonville.

To attract top teachers, Somerset officials said they rewrote the district’s salary schedule to provide the most generous pay plan in the state. The Tallahassee Democrat reported some teachers received raises as high as $16,000. The newspaper published salary information showing a Jefferson teacher would earn roughly $7,000 more than a colleague with similar qualifications in neighboring Leon County.

In other words, the charter organization steered more resources into the classroom.  But lawmakers had questions about the flip side of that investment. State law requires charter schools to pay administrative fees for their district authorizers. For most newly opened charters, including Somerset, those fees are worth 5 percent of the schools’ core per-pupil operating funding.

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, is the vice chair of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee. During a committee meeting Wednesday, he asked how the district could afford salaries for five elected school board members, the elected superintendent and one other employee.

“I recognize the shortfall of the district’s fee, their 5 percent fee they do receive per statute, versus their salaries combined of $421,000 and some change. What is going to cover that shortfall in the future?” he asked. “In the future, how is the school district of Jefferson County going to continue to operate in the black if their salaries are almost half a million dollars but they are getting only $254,000 in the 5 percent fee?”

Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah Gardens, said the district’s budget is still a “work in progress.”

For example, Somerset operates an elementary school, a middle school and a high school on a single campus. But the district owns other buildings. Legislators want a list of other property the district owns to help assess its finances.

“The property listing by the school district doesn’t reconcile with the Jefferson County property appraiser’s data,” Diaz said. “We are trying to get an accurate list so you can understand the property situated in Jefferson County. Without the properties, we don’t know what the total financial picture is.”

Other pieces of the puzzle will take time to come into focus. Jefferson County saw an unprecedented exodus of hundreds of families to private schools, home education and neighboring districts as its schools languished through a decade of low achievement. Somerset officials want to attract those students — and the state funding that follows them — back to Jefferson County schools. Over time, returning students could be a financial boon for both the charter school organization and the district office.

Diaz said the bottom line for lawmakers is that the district needs to be financially sustainable. And that means having the ability to pay the salaries of essential school board employees.

“They have to have money to pay that, to stay in the black,” he said.

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