Fla. school board says it won’t ‘claw back’ charter school capital funds if districts win suit

Travis Pillow

Collier County School Board chairman Roy Terry

Two Florida school boards have turned over funding they withheld from charter schools while they challenged the constitutionality of a contentious new education law.

WLRN reports that, after receiving a rebuke from the Florida Department of Education, the Broward and Orange County School Boards have provided charter schools with their share of local capital outlay funding.

And controversy continues to swirl around the districts’ move and the state’s intervention.

Both districts provided evidence to the state on Friday that they had distributed the money to charter schools — including, in Broward’s case, about $204,000 to five schools that have indicated they plan to close at the end of the school year. “Much of those funds will likely be unrecoverable,” the Broward school board’s general counsel, Barbara Myrick, wrote in a Friday letter to the department.

In fiery responses set against the backdrop of an ongoing legal battle, the Broward district’s attorney accused the department of presenting an “ultimatum,”  and the chief legal officer for Orange County schools wrote that his district’s payments to charter schools were being made “under protest.”

The Miami public radio station’s report notes Broward and Orange Counties, like some other districts involved in the lawsuits challenging the law known as HB 7069, are warning charter schools not to spend the money. If the law gets declared unconstitutional, they warn, they will try to get the funding back.

While that drama unfolded last week, the chairman of another Florida school board wanted to provide assurance to charter schools in his district.

Roy Terry, the chairman of the Collier County School Board, opened last week’s meeting by reading a statement into the record. He said charter schools were free to spend the money — about $4.4 million, which can be used to pay for facilities and other capital expenses.

“It is understood that our charters need to spend the funds that they have been given,” he said, noting some schools sustained damage during Hurricane Irma and needed urgent repairs.

“If the law is declared unconstitutional, it would be up to either the Legislature or a court to order charter schools throughout the state to return the funds,” Terry said in his statement. “We will not be asking for them back. Let me make that clear: We [the local school board] will not be asking for them back.”

The Naples Daily News reported that some charter schools in the district still worry about the legal uncertainty, and have still decided not to spend the money until the lawsuit is resolved.

A divided Collier County school board voted last year to side with the 13 school districts challenging the law in a Leon County circuit court. But the district is only weighing in on two parts of the multi-pronged suit. Its motion to intervene takes issue with provisions streamlining charter contracts and creating a new Schools of Hope program. It doesn’t challenge the capital funding portions of the law. A separate lawsuit by the Palm Beach County School Board focuses solely on the funding portion of the law.

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