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Pinellas to vote Tuesday on whether to join lawsuit against controversial education bill

Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego is urging the School Board to join 11 other Florida districts in challenging a controversial law that steers more control and public dollars to charter schools.

Board members are expected to vote on his recommendation at their regular meeting Tuesday.

The board has discussed the possibility of joining a lawsuit since July, when Broward County school officials led the way by vowing to sue the Legislature over the law. Many board members appear to favor moving ahead with the challenge.

So far, the Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Orange, Duval, St. Lucie, Volusia, Lee, Bay, Hamilton and Polk county school systems have joined in.

Pinellas officials have taken issue with two key parts of the law, known by the massive piece of legislation that made it possible - House Bill 7069.

One provision gives charter schools the power to open near low-performing traditional public schools without approval from local school boards. The other requires that school districts share their revenues for construction and maintenance projects with charter schools.

"The big picture view is it is eroding home rule, and that's important for local governments," said School Board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea. "I'm looking forward to the discussion. I've got an open mind right now, and we'll move ahead on Tuesday."

How much funding each school district must allocate for charter school construction is based on each district's debt level and how many students are enrolled in charter schools - not by school facility needs, as the law previously dictated. That means school districts with more debt may pay less than districts with relatively little debt.

Pinellas has a total budget of $1.5 billion and debt totaling $2.3 million, or one-tenth of 1 percent of the overall budget, which is smaller than other large school districts. Yet the district will have to share 4.66 percent of its capital funds with charter schools this year.

"We're losing quite a bit of money," said board member Rene Flowers. "You're penalizing us for being good stewards, in my opinion, of finances."
Pinellas also has penned a letter seeking help from local legislators to "lesson the inequality" of the law. Grego has met with Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, to hear their thoughts on the lawsuit.

"Our district's fiscal responsibility and lack of debt will require us to relinquish an unjust portion of capital funds already allocated for projects within our state-approved five-year capital outlay plan," Grego wrote July 18. "This result conflicts with the state's historical practice of equitable funding of public education."

The School Board will have a packed day on Tuesday.

11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. – School Board Workshop

3:30 p.m. – Regular School Board meeting

5:01 p.m. – Budget Hearing 

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