Millions in Fla. charter school funding may hinge on the meaning of this phrase

Are charter schools entitled to an equal per-student share of the funding their districts raise from voter-approved property taxes?

Or can districts keep all the revenue for the schools they operate themselves?

The answer appears to hinge on the definition of this phrase in Florida statutes: “Current operating discretionary millage levy.”

The law requires school districts to share all the revenue described by that phrase with charter schools. Last year, an Indian River County circuit judge ruled voter-approved property taxes fit that definition, and charter schools were entitled to their fair share.

The Palm Beach County School Board, informed by a similar legal analysis, was poised to share any revenue from a proposed property tax referendum with the nearly 50 charter schools the district authorizes.

But now the board has obtained a new legal opinion that says otherwise, as first reported by the Palm Beach Post. Next week, it could decide not to include charter schools in the proposed tax referendum, after all.

The new legal opinion notes there are three sources of property-tax revenue that pay for public-school operating expenses (as opposed to capital expenses, like school construction; that’s another matter).

The first is the property taxes districts contribute to the state education budget. A formula divvies those among all public schools, including charters, so there’s no question charters get a fair share of that funding.

The second is an optional property tax, which needs to be authorized by the Legislature and can supplement the state formula. The latest legal opinion obtained by the Palm Beach County School Board concludes that this second source is the “current operating discretionary millage levy” charters are entitled to. But that legal opinion also notes that phrase is not explicitly defined in the law.

Indian River County Judge Paul Kanarek ruled that the third source — an optional, voter-approved property tax levy — also met the definition of a “current operating discretionary millage levy” and needed to be shared with charters.

On the other hand, the new legal opinion concludes, based on the history of the state laws governing school district property taxes, that the undefined phrase “current operating discretionary millage levy” does not apply to the third funding source. In short, that’s because the law allowing school districts to ask voters for additional property tax revenue to fund school operations didn’t exist when the state first wrote its charter school law in 1996, and the Legislature never updated the statute to say charter schools are entitled to that revenue.

Kanarek’s ruling was never appealed, which means it never created a binding precedent in Palm Beach County. So the subtext of the district’s new legal opinion is that it might stand a chance of beating charter schools in court if they sue the district and demand an equal share of funding from the property tax referendum.

All of this could set the stage for some legal wrangling over statutory definitions and legislative history unless the Legislature steps in to clear things up. Millions of dollars in charter school funding, in Palm Beach and other districts that raise voter-approved property taxes, could be at stake.

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