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State Education Officials Scold Broward District For Delaying Payments To Charter Schools

Joe Rimkus Jr.
Miami Herald
Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie got a letter from the state Department of Education asking why the district missed a statutory deadline for providing local construction funding to charter schools.

It’s been a week since Florida’s public school districts were supposed to distribute about $91 million in local construction funding to privately-run charter schools in their counties under a controversial new law.

But Broward County Public Schools hasn't yet handed over its $11.5 million share to the 86 charter schools in that district — prompting an admonishment from the state Department of Education.

State education officials wrote a letter to Broward County Public Schools superintendent Robert Runcie on Wednesday advising the district to pay up — or provide a valid legal explanation why not — by Friday.

A spokeswoman for the Broward district acknowledged receipt of the letter and provided the following statement: "Broward County Public Schools firmly believes that House Bill 7069 [the new law] is detrimental to students and teachers by allowing the use of local taxpayer dollars to pay for capital improvements to properties owned by private, for-profit entities."

The department sent a similar letter to Orange County Public Schools; a spokeswoman for that district did not have an immediate comment.

Broward, Orange and several other school districts have sued to overturn parts of House Bill 7069, the law that requires districts to share some of the $2.7 billion they collect in local property taxes for school construction with charters. The Palm Beach County district also challenged the law in court.

Broward and its co-plaintiffs had asked a judge to hold onto the capital outlay money earmarked for charters until after the legal proceedings were complete, and Palm Beach County had asked for an injunction that would have halted the Feb. 1 payments awaiting the outcome of the lawsuit. Their requests were denied.

So Broward had no excuse to delay delivering the money, state public schools chancellor Hershel Lyons wrote in the letter.

“The pendency of this legal action is not an appropriate basis for nonpayment of the capital outlay funds,” Lyons wrote.

“By noon on Friday, February 9, 2018, please provide me with documentation sufficient to show that the payments to the eligible public charter schools in Broward County … have been made,” according to the letter. “Alternatively, by this same deadline, please provide me with every factual and legal justification that the School Board of Broward County has for nonpayment.”

The letter concludes: the department will review Broward’s response to determine whether the district should be found to have violated state law.

The Broward district is considering appealing the judge’s decision not to delay the payments, according to an email sent to charter schools that was  provided to WLRN by the Florida Charter School Alliance, a lobbying organization that alerted the department about the delay in providing the funding.

In the Tuesday email, Jody Perry, Broward’s director of charter school management and support, wrote the district has placed the payments “with an escrow agent who will maintain the funds until directed to release them.”

Perry also noted in the email that state education officials have argued in court districts would be able to recoup funding paid out to charter schools if the law was later found unconstitutional.

“Specifically the State argued that School Districts could deduct those amounts from funds provided to charter schools for operational expenses in the form of per student funding,” Perry wrote in the email. “BCPS is reviewing the validity of the state’s position on this issue.”

Palm Beach County school leaders are also interested in state officials’ claims that districts would be able to get their money back if the law was invalidated. The district’s chief financial officer, Michael Burke, wrote a memo to charter school leaders on Jan. 26 alerting them that the district would seek to retrieve its $9.3 million if given the opportunity.

In the memo, also provided by the charter school group, Burke wrote: "This letter shall serve as notice, in the event that the School Board obtains a final judgment in its favor that the above-referenced statutory requirements are unconstitutional, the School Board will utilize any available mechanism(s) to recoup those funds that were distributed while the unconstitutional provisions were in effect.”

Burke then asked the charter leaders to sign and date an “acknowledgement form” and return it within five business days.

The Legislature is currently considering a billthat would make charter schools rely on state funding primarily for construction funding, alleviating districts’ responsibility to share the local funding unless there wasn’t enough state money available.

This story has been updated with a statement from Broward County Public Schools.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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