The Florida Board of Education last week asked lawmakers to give charter schools an extra $10.2 million for classroom construction next year, increasing the charter allocation from the Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) fund to $155 million.
That recommendation was made easier by the projected growth in the gross receipts tax that feeds the PECO fund, but it also calls attention to a new trigger built into law that is designed to protect charter schools from dips in state support. Under a new law intended to provide a safety net for charter capital funding, school districts are required to share some of their property tax revenues if the annual PECO support dips below $145.2 million – which is the amount of this year’s appropriation.
The kicker is that counties with large amounts of public school construction debt are exempt from that new requirement, and four counties – Pasco, Lake, Columbia and Dixie – currently meet that threshold.
Charter school officials in Pasco say the debt ratio provision creates inequity for charter schools across the state. They worry if PECO dollars are not funded at the same levels, charter schools in the exempt counties will be left on the hook to cover all capital costs, putting other educational priorities at their schools potentially on the chopping block.
“Anybody that understands PECO would be worried,” said Ray Polk, the director of Academy at the Farm, an ‘A’ rated charter school in Pasco County. “It is a political football. It can fluctuate year to year.”
PECO dollars are stable and total collections are projected at $1.18 billion this year, according to Amy Baker, the chief economist for the Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research. Most of that money is set aside to cover the debt payments on the prior issuance of bonds for current and past construction for public school districts and higher education institutions. The legislature appropriated approximately $886 million for that purpose for the 2019-2020 school year.
The squeeze is many entities including charter schools, universities and traditional public schools are all competing for the remainder of that pot, and there is not enough for all projects to be funded, according to Baker.
State universities alone are requesting $64 million from PECO. There is also $732 million in unfinished PECO projects.
The Pasco County School Board decided on Sept. 4 that it will not share its local capital funding with charter schools, regardless of whether the PECO support drops.
Polk’s Academy at the Farm received $289,000 from PECO this year, for capital needs for a student population of 580. PECO covers costs for restoring and renovating state facilities.
“If they cut the PECO dollars it would drastically affect our school,” Polk said. “We bleed over our budget. We really must look at it closely.”
Evan Markowitz, principal of Athenian Academy of Technology and the Arts, a Title 1 charter school in New Port Richey, said there should be equity in funding for all charter schools.
“You have schools in Pinellas and look at the dollars they are receiving,” said Markowitz. “There are so many things we could do if we received those dollars. We are not providing equitable dollars to our kiddos. You pretty much need every dollar you can get.”
Katie Betta, incoming Senate President Bill Galvano’s spokeswoman, said Galvano believes the issue of equity in funding for charter schools will be reviewed as committees begin meeting later this fall.
Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, the House Education Appropriations chairman, said the formula put in place to give state funding to charter schools provides “more equity for those who chose to attend a charter instead of a traditional school.”
“The prior system actually reduced the money a student would receive based on a school selection,” he said.
If PECO dollars were to be reduced next year, Diaz said the Pasco School Board would be required to share to make up the difference. He acknowledged that Pasco’s debt ratio would relieve it of some of that obligation.
Overall, Diaz said he believed state PECO dollars will be funded.
“Districts and charters will work together to push for that to be funded,” he said.
But Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, the Ranking Democrat on the Education Committee, wants more PECO dollars given to traditional public schools.
“We can’t neglect the public-school system to prop up charter schools,” he said.