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Court Rules Against Charter Schools In Funding Fight

Emily Michot
Miami Herald
A divided appeals court Wednesday backed the Palm Beach County School Board in a fight about whether charter schools should get a cut of voter-approved tax dollars

TALLAHASSEE --- In an issue that has drawn heavy debate in the Legislature, a divided appeals court Wednesday backed the Palm Beach County School Board in a fight about whether charter schools should get a cut of voter-approved tax dollars.

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A panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal rejected arguments that the school board is required to share money from a 2018 property-tax referendum with charter schools. The ballot question asked voters to allow a property-tax increase for issues such as school safety and teacher pay, saying the money would be “dedicated for operational needs of non-charter district schools.”

Charter schools are public schools that are typically operated by private entities. Two charter schools, Academy for Positive Learning and Palm Beach Maritime Academy, and two parents filed a lawsuit arguing that charter schools were entitled to a portion of the voter-approved money.

But in a 2-1 decision Wednesday, the appeals court upheld a circuit judge’s ruling against the charter schools. The 14-page majority opinion, written by Judge Robert Gross, focused on wording in part of a state law that allows school boards to hold such referendums.

“No language in (that part of the law), as it existed in 2018, requires that funds generated by the referendum be distributed to charter schools,” Gross wrote, in an opinion joined by Judge Melanie May. “The only requirement for the use of ‘additional millage’ collected as a result of the referendum is that it be used ‘for school operational purposes,’ which vests much discretion in a School Board to allocate the funds.”

But Judge Jonathan Gerber, in a 10-page dissent, argued that the school district was violating state law by “excluding charter schools from that portion of the current discretionary operating millage levy … as approved by voters in the 2018 referendum.” He said the referendum should be declared void.

Charter schools receive money through the Florida Education Finance Program, the state’s primary funding system for public schools.

But the issue about charter schools getting a share of local property-tax dollars has spurred extensive debate in the Legislature. Amid the Palm Beach County legal fight, Republican lawmakers in 2019 passed a measure (HB 7123) that said charter schools should get a proportionate amount of such tax dollars for operational needs.

Wednesday’s majority opinion, however, said lawmakers did not make that change retroactive to earlier referendums, such as the Palm Beach County referendum. Also, the opinion rejected arguments by the plaintiffs that the 2019 change clarified the position of the Legislature on the issue.

“Appellants (the charter schools and parents) contend that the amendment served to clarify, rather than change, the law, thereby evidencing the Legislature’s intent that the voted millage funds be shared with public charter schools all along,” Gross wrote. “We reject that contention because the legislative history does not support it.”

In his dissent, Gerber said the 2019 legislative change shouldn’t affect the case and offered an analysis of state laws dealing with charter-school funding and school referendums. In part, he argued that the school district overlooked part of one law’s “plain meaning that charter school students shall be funded by the same method as other public school students.”

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