The education bill Gov. Rick Scott signed into law this afternoon will hurt Flagler County schools’ finances, diminish elementary schools’ flexibility, reduce accountability for charter schools and pit traditional schools against charter schools, even though both are publicly funded, Flagler education officials said today.
“There’s things in this bill that I believe will be very, very detrimental,” Flagler School Board Chairman Trevor Tucker said. “Tuesday we’re going to go through it and begin to figure out where we can make things work and where things will hurt us.” The school board meets for an afternoon-long workshop on June 20.
“We’re just getting choked,” Tom Tant, the district’s long-time finance director, said, referring to the bill and broader funding implications this year.
Most significantly, the Flagler school district will now have to hand over $570,000 out of its capital funds to the district’s two charter schools, for them to spend on capital improvements or, if they wish, on teacher benefits or other matters unrelated to capital improvements.
The school district will get a total of $12.87 million in capital dollars this year, of which $4.4 million is committed to debt servicing, leaving the rest for capital improvements. The more than half million dollars it must now transfer to the charter schools represents almost 7 percent of the fund at a time when the district is strapped for capital dollars.
“We have a lot of projects that we have to use that for,” Tant said, “and right now, over the next five years, we’ve got about a $15 million problem with our capital outlay. We have more projects than we have money, and that’s before we started sharing with the charter schools.”
Capital dollars are used to improve and maintain buildings, repair or replace roofs, air conditioning systems and school buses. The school bus budget is about $700,000, if the district were to replace six school buses a year. It has been replacing closer to two or four. Tant said it should be replacing 10 a year, at a cost of $1.2 million. Indian Trails Middle School’s air conditioning system hasn’t been replaced since the school was built in 1994. Half a million dollars (just about the amount going to the charters) is devoted to replacing that system. (This year’s capital improvement dollar fund was to grow by about $600,000—essentially, the amount to be shifted to charters.)
There’s another problem with sending public money to charter schools: The charter schools are housed in privately owned, or leased, facilities: Imagine School at Town Center’s 10 acres and buildings, for example, are leased by a company called AEP Charter based on Portland, Oregon. If Imagine were to close, the money the school district is investing there will be lost. The district has no say how that money may be spent, nor any oversight.
“It’s just upsetting to me that we have to try and compete with an unfair playing field.”
Education leaders, including superintendents from across the state and Flagler County’s school board members, had urged Scott to veto House Bill 7069, an enormous, $419 million measure that would reshape public education financing, shifting millions of dollars to charter schools, reducing their accountability, and enabling them to directly compete with traditional public schools, but on more favorable terms.
Scott this afternoon signed it, and did so in an ironic, if not defiant, setting: at a private, Catholic school “with Christ as the ever present teacher,” as the school’s mission statement describes it.
Capital dollars’ transfers aside, the measure creates a funding program for so-called “schools of hope”—charter schools operating in the neighborhood of struggling traditional public schools. It expands a bonus-pay program for certain teachers, dubbed the “Best and Brightest.” It requires school districts to include 20 minutes a day of unrestricted play in elementary schools, but not in charter schools. It eliminates auditing oversight of Florida Virtual School, the online program. And it includes other provisions that address such things as school uniforms.
The measure was never debated in committee. It includes no fewer than 55 bills, many of which had partially or fully failed in the committee process, and emerged in final form for the first time on May 5, three days before the end of the session. (See a line by line analysis of the measure below.)
“I do not believe it will be very favorable to our school district,” Tucker said in a brief interview between sessions at a Florida School Board Association conference, which he was attending with fellow school board members Andy Dance and Maria Barbosa. “Everyone seems not to be very happy with the bill but there’s been no session” devoted to the topic, Tucker said of the conference.
“Any time you have a train bill that gets through the legislative process there is good and bad,” board member Colleen Conklin said in an interview from California, where her son was competing in a national surfing competition. People familiar with the legislative process call “a train bill” what would more colloquially be called an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink bill. “More than anything it was disappointing for school districts and public education as a whole because of the lack of transparency and debate,” Conklin continued. “It’s prob going to go down in history as one of the most expansive, charter-friendly pieces of legislation that’s been signed by a governor in the nation.”
Conklin noted that the bill does contain some “excellent pieces,” as with measures regarding testing and assessments. But the charter provisions rankle. “The biggest frustration is that taxpayer dollars will be benefiting private businesses,” she said.
The bill leaves districts with a lot of uncertainty, Tucker said. For example, the new mandate to provide 20 minutes of unrestricted play in elementary schools hasn’t been defined as having to be provided as a 20-minute block or as shorter increments through the day. A 20-minute block would not fit in the current elementary school schedule, Tucker said. In another example of the measure’s bias for charter schools, the requirement does not have to be implemented in charter schools (which also get dispensation from certain forms of testing and auditing).
“The state is making it us versus charters,” Tucker said. But if both are public schools, he said, the state should set aside money for the charter schools as it does for traditional public schools, rather than require local districts to gut their budgets on behalf of charters. Alternately, the state could give back taxing authority to the districts, Tucker said. Neither of those approaches are a possibility for now.
Tant, the Flagler finance director, said legislation’s effect is even more far-reaching this year. On a per-student basis, Flagler County’s funding now ranks 65th out of 67 counties, even though proportionately, Flagler has the sixth highest property tax burden in the state, when it comes to the so-called “required local effort” that funds education. So the county is sending more money than it’s receiving, when compared to other counties.
True, the new education bill sets aside an additional $100 per student statewide. But the district expects to start the new year on Aug. 10 with about 120 additional students. That takes up about 60 percent of the increase (every 19 students require an additional teacher). Midyear financial adjustments have not favored Flagler, which has lost an average of $1.1 million a year in state funding in December.
And 10 years after the Great Recession, despite those increases, the district’s k-12 funding is still lower than it was in 2007: It was $91.2 million that year. It will be $90.2 million come August. The district in the past made up some of the difference by shortening the school day and finding other ways to cut the budget. This year’s state funding increase won’t be enough to cover the scheduled 2 percent pay increase set for the district’s 1,800 employees (a step increase required for those who add a year’s experience to their history). So to ensure that the increase is paid, the board will have to find 1.5 percent in cuts.
That’s the context of the competition with charter schools that school officials say is hurting traditional schools, especially in a district where there are no disparities between schools: all are ranked as A or B schools, the district itself is rated B, and all schools are schools of choice, giving parents the freedom to decide where to have their children attend.
“I’ve been here 24 years,” Tant said. “It’s just upsetting to me that we have to try and compete with an unfair playing field.”