BRADENTON, Fla. — A bill moving swiftly through the Florida Senate could threaten the fiscal stability of the state’s 67 public school districts and endanger funds that already secure bonds, according to school officials and some lawmakers.
SB 1852 from Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, proposes to divert a portion of 1.5 mills that public school districts use to fund capital expenditures for charter schools. If a district refuses to share its millage, the charter would get the money from operating funds allocated to the district by the state.
Many Florida school districts have obligated a portion or all the millage to secure bonds or certificates of participation.
“If [the bill] goes into effect the way it is now, we are very concerned about the impact it can have on debt service,” said Joy Frank, general counsel for the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.
Frank told the Senate Education Committee this week that up to 20 districts may have obligated all their capital millage rates to bonds or COPs. Districts are already experiencing stress because the millage rate is bringing in fewer dollars due to depressed property values, she said.
An analysis of the bill prepared for legislators said that it could affect district ratings because revenues currently dedicated to pay debt service obligations could be diverted.
“The school districts’ ability to pay debt service obligations, and to enter into future financing arrangements to address capital outlay needs, may be adversely affected,” the analysis said.
There are more than 500 charter schools in Florida serving 180,000 students, according to Richard Swier of Sarasota, who told the Senate committee he supports the bill and said his grandchildren go to charter schools.
“Many parents are wondering why their taxes don’t go to charter schools,” he said. “They do not get equal public funding.”
Frank, and other speakers, said that when first proposed, proponents of charter schools said they could open and operate on less funding since they were not required to follow the same regulations as public schools.
Last year, $55 million in state public education capital outlay funds went to charters, while none went to public schools, according to Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee.
Montford was unable to get his amendment passed that would have stripped the bill of the capital funding requirement.
“If this bill is passed as it is, without this amendment, this will result in an increase in financial stress on our school districts’ debt burden,” he said. “Many school districts have the funds already obligated for many years to come.”
The committee passed the bill on a 5-to-1 vote. It is slated to be heard by the budget committee next.
Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said if the capital millage is diverted, it’s possible larger school districts won’t be able to pay all their debt service.
That is partly due to the fact that the state Legislature in recent years reduced the tax rate from two mills to the current 1.5 mills, he said.
“The districts are paying off debt with less money,” Blanton said. “The other issue is that 1.5 mills is bringing in less because of the substantial drop in property values.”
Blanton said the bill is not in the best interest of charter schools because it could drive a wedge between them and the districts that work cooperatively with them, due to the lost funding source.
“This is about the lack of capital education outlay funding,” he said.
The School Board Association plans to work on defeating the bill and convincing the Legislature to create a task force to examine ways to fund capital education needs.