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State officials say Broward district owes millions to charter schools. Here’s some context

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (left) and Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz at the True North Classical Academy charter school in Miami on May 9 2023.
Pedro Portal
Miami Herald
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (left) and Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz speak at the True North Classical Academy charter school in Miami on May 9, 2023.

As a teacher-turned-state lawmaker, Manny Diaz, Jr. was known as a leading advocate for charter schools in Tallahassee. And during his time as an elected official he took thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from leaders in the school choice sector as he helped make Florida a haven for those looking to disrupt the traditional public school model.

Now, as Florida's education commissioner, Diaz is working to ensure that charter schools get millions of dollars in public funds — money that voters had set aside for traditional public schools in Broward County.

“Commissioner Diaz, throughout his career as a teacher, administrator, legislator, and Commissioner of Education has been an ardent advocate for students, irrespective of the educational option they choose to pursue,” said Florida Department of Education spokesperson Cailey Myers in response to a request for comment for this story.

READ MORE: Chartered — Florida's First Private Takeover Of A Public School System

The current dispute dates back to a tax referendum that Broward voters approved back in 2018 to raise millions of dollars to boost funding for school safety and teacher pay in Broward County Public Schools. At the time, the district didn’t have to share those revenues with charter schools, which are funded with taxpayer dollars but run by private organizations.

Since then, court cases and a new state law have changed that — requiring traditional public schools to share the funds they raise from tax referendums with charter schools.

State officials say BCPS owes $80 million to charter schools

Now, BPCS is facing lawsuits from charter schools over what they say they’re owed. And Commissioner Diaz and the State Board of Education aren’t waiting for the lawsuits to play out.

“Broward owes — currently owes — charter schools in its district around $80 million collectively,” said Andrew King, general counsel for the Florida Department of Education. “And because it has yet to pay this money, it is currently not in compliance with state law.”

In legal filings, attorneys for BCPS have argued that the school district’s “already stretched budget cannot withstand an unforeseen payout of this magnitude without dire consequences.”

After Diaz launched an investigation into the charter schools’ allegations, the state board met on March 27 and formally declared that BCPS is out of compliance with state law and directed the district to reach an agreement on how much to pay the charter schools by April 17 — or face the consequences. Potential sanctions by the state board could include:

  • Reporting to the Legislature that the district is “unwilling or unable to comply” with state laws or rules and recommend action to be taken by the Legislature
  • Withholding the transfer of state funds, discretionary grant funds or other funds until the district complies
  • Declaring the district ineligible for competitive grants
  • Requiring monthly or periodic reporting until the issue is resolved

Attorneys for BCPS have been pushing back, arguing that state officials are overstepping the balance of powers between the courts and the executive branch.
“Because these lawsuits exist and they are in full litigation right now for breach of contract, it seems like it would be a problem to have another branch sort of interfere with the process that is already being set into place,” said Marylin Batista, general counsel for the Broward County School Board.

It’s an argument that state officials flatly dismissed.

“Our authority derives from the constitution. And just because a private party chooses to exercise their rights in court doesn't just mean that all of a sudden we lose our authority to act,” said State Board Chair Ben Gibson. “So I reject that.”

And now, Broward School Board Member Daniel Foganholi is calling for Batista to be terminated without cause for her handling of this matter. The board is scheduled to discuss the proposal — and get an update on negotiations with the charter schools — at a meeting on April 16.

Teacher, school choice advocate, state regulator  

Long before Gov. Ron DeSantis nominated him to be the state’s commissioner of education in 2022, and long before he became a state legislator representing parts of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, Manny Diaz was an educator.

He spent two decades in Miami-Dade County Public Schools as a teacher and assistant principal before moving into the charter school space, where he became closely affiliated with one of the largest charter school networks in the state, Academica.

Diaz was a top administrator at Doral College, which is an Academica-affiliated school where charter students can take dual enrollment classes to earn college credits.

As a state lawmaker, Diaz was a go-to advocate for school choice efforts and was one of a group of legislators with close ties to charter schools who regulated schools that they and their families had a financial stake in.

As an elected official, Diaz and his political committee took tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from charter school groups and executives, among many other donors and industries, according to a report by Integrity Florida and a separate review of campaign finance records by WLRN.

One repeat donor was Charter Schools USA, a national education management company based in Fort Lauderdale that was founded by Jon Hage, one of the original architects of Florida’s charter school movement dating back to the era of then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

According to a review of campaign finance filings, Charter Schools USA regularly made $1,000 contributions to Diaz — the maximum contribution that can be made to an individual legislative candidate under state law.

CSUSA donated even more to the political committee that Diaz chaired, Better Florida Education — including a $25,000 contribution that came exactly one month after DeSantis tapped Diaz to be the state’s next commissioner of education.

CSUSA is the management company that operates a number of the schools that are now suing BCPS over the millions of dollars in referendum funds they say they’re owed. It’s those legal challenges that prompted Diaz and the state board of ed to step in, in an effort to compel BCPS to pay up.

In response to a request for comment on Diaz’ past relationships with charter school executives and donors, a spokesperson for FDOE said the commissioner has been “an ardent advocate” for students, regardless of which educational options they and their families choose.

“The Commissioner of Education has a duty and responsibility to ensure that school districts are complying with state law,” spokesperson Cailey Myers said. “To suggest that his positions have been influenced by anything other than his commitment to high-quality educational options for all students is a flat-out lie.”

What comes next

BCPS officials and attorneys for the district say they’re committed to resolving the disputes with the charter schools as soon as possible. But they’ve warned that negotiating a settlement agreement with 87 different charter schools will take time — and it may not be possible to finish it by April 17, as directed by the state board of ed.

“The [Broward] board is fully committed to address those concerns and to work as expeditiously as possible,” Batista said. “There are 87 schools. So this is no small matter to address in a short period of time.”

The state board is scheduled to take up the issue again at its meeting on April 17. If board members aren’t satisfied with the progress made by BCPS at that point, state officials could sanction the district — including by withholding state funds.

Kate Payne is WLRN's Education Reporter. Reach her at kpayne@wlrnnews.org
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