House Committee Approves Changes To School Construction Funding Over District Objections

Feb 10, 2016

Construction of Leupp School
Credit gallery.usgs.gov / Bureau of Indian Affairs

The Florida House has moved forward with a proposal to reduce the cost of school construction and steer more dollars to charter schools. But over the objection of superintendents, the House Appropriations Committee approved the bill. But it could face challenges in the Senate.

House Bill 879 outlines how the state awards building funds to small, rural districts. But it also includes language that would punish districts that go over state spending caps. Amendments by Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen require districts that raise building funds locally to share with charter schools—something some lawmakers have tried to get through the legislature for years. Fresen says there is no conspiracy:

"This is not Representative Fresen against superintendents or trying to disparage school systems. This is just an experiment by this committee to recognize that at a time when there’s no appetite to go back from 1.5 mills to 2, let’s take a look at how it’s spent," he told House Appropriations Committee members Tuesday.

Mills are the additional taxes school districts can levy to support maintenance and construction. But Superintendents view the bill with suspicion. They’ve been adamantly opposed to the idea of sharing locally generated dollars with charters. Fresen says he’s just trying to put an end to the back-and-forth and set out a system for divvying up funds everyone can follow:

“So the concept is to de-politicize that conversation…and recognize that facilities are facilities and the best way to de-politicize something is to put blinders on it, create a formula that will be able to be sustainable, and let the formula work.” 

Fresen and the superintendents' association have engaged in a war of words over a report Fresen says shows school districts have spent a billion dollars more than state spending caps allow on building and maintenance over the past decade. Superintendents say that report doesn’t paint an accurate picture of how those decisions are made, but Fresen says the report was generated off information submitted by districts.

Escambia County Superintendent Malcolm Thomas says schools can’t afford to lose a portion of their building funds. And he says for his district, the expenses are due to the age of the buildings. He says the average age of schools in his district is more than 45 years.

“We built a new school this year. And the main building of that school is 100 years old, because it’s difficult and challenging for districts to come up with money to fund those expenditures," Thomas explained. "Building a new school isn’t cheap.”

He argues the current system, which sets spending caps based on a per-student allocation, doesn’t reflect what it actually costs to build a facility, and believes the state should consider using square footage as a better measure. Democratic Minority Leader Mark Pafford believes the bill will make it harder for districts to fund schools:

“Perhaps we can tap the breaks on this. If we’re going to look at changing these types of issues, maybe look toward next year or just stopping it now so we can get greater input before it hits the floor," Pafford said.

The bill would require state economists to review the caps currently in law. The House Appropriations Committee approved the bill on a largely party line vote, with Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, joining Republicans in support. But the Superintendents may be having better luck in the Senate. Republican Sen. Anitere Flores has a similar measure that is strictly limited to how building funds for small, rural districts is allocated. Flores’ bill does not include the charter school language.