House To Take Up School Construction With Eye Toward Charter School Capital Funding

Feb 8, 2016

Credit via Leon County Schools

The House Appropriations Committee will take up a measure limiting school construction spending, and steering more dollars to charter schools. The bill comes after Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, accused school districts of misspending on construction for new schools. Now district superintendents are firing back.

For the past several years some members of the Florida Legislature have pushed to force school districts to share locally-generated construction dollars with charter schools. The Republican-led legislature has also given charter schools more capital funds than traditional public schools under Governor Rick Scott’s administration. Former Florida Secretary of State, and present Pasco County Superintendent Kurt Browning believes a new proposal by the House Appropriations Committee on school construction is an attempt to justify the diversion of local school building funds to charter schools.

“I suppose they want to justify taking part of the 1.5 mills and placing it toward charter school capital by trying to tell the public local  school districts have been wasteful with the money you have. So it won’t hurt districts. That can’t be further from the truth," he said.

Browning is angry about a report released by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami. Fresen claims school districts have spent $1.3 billion more on construction within the past decade than state law allows. According to the report, school construction is limited to about $22,000 per student in elementary school, $23,000 per student for middle schools, and $30,000 per student for high school.

“This isn’t a problem of one district or two… it’s a statewide problem and a statewide condition. So I wanted to bring that out when you’re having the conversation of how to expend capital dollars. To what extent should we reign in or create a little more structure," said Fresen during his presentation to the House Appropriations Committee a few weeks ago.

Most school construction is funded at the local level, however the state has also kicked in substantial money. And Fresen says lawmakers need to be critical when districts claim they can’t fund construction or maintenance projects.

“I think you will realize when you start fielding conversations about increasing local millege from 1 to 2 when districts say they’ve lost their bonding capacity or elasticity or whatever it may be, take a look at the historical trends on the cost overruns they’ve had on their facilities, and whether we need to consider putting in reigns on this.”

The Florida Association of District School Superintendents is refuting Fresen’s claims. His report calls out several districts including Pasco County. But Pasco’s Kurt Browning says in his district’s case, Fresen’s report is misleading, and inaccurate. He points to the inclusion of an auto mechanic facility that was added to Pasco’s career academy as an example. That facility includes two auto bays, equipment and a learning classroom that seats 25 students.

“If you want to calculate a per student station cost, you’ll take the total project cost and divide it by 25. That was never how it was intended to work. Because at that point, you’ll be way over the $25,125 dollars per student," Browning explained.

He says that project shouldn’t have counted because additions are exempt from the spending caps under state law.

Tuesday the House Appropriations Committee will take up a bill restricting state construction funds from districts that exceed the spending caps outlined in law. But it also goes a step further by telling districts that have passed additional voter-approved school construction taxes, to share those dollars with charter schools.

"When you have a proposal in Tallahassee that’s going to micro-manage school districts on how we build our schools, I think its crossing the line. I understand what they’re trying to do, but don’t make school districts look like we’ve been wasteful or reckless in trying to get there," said Browning.

Pasco, Walton, Calhoun, Sumpter, Volusia, Hillsboro and Washington County schools have all written letters questioning Fresen’s analysis. The Florida Association of District School Superintendents says more are on the way. Several superintendents are planning to attend Tuesday’s hearing.