TAMPA — U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor plunged into the argument over charter schools vs. traditional public schools Monday, accusing charter school advocates in the state Legislature of “theft of tax dollars from our public schools.”
Accompanied by local and state PTA officers and by state Rep. Mark Danish, a public school teacher on leave to serve in the Legislature, Castor charged that the Republican majority in the Legislature has diverted nearly all the money it allocates for school construction and renovation to charter schools, leaving none for public schools.
“While we let our public schools decay, the charter schools get to play,” said Danish, who, like Castor, is a Tampa Democrat.
Danish said legislators “simply want to hurt public schools. There’s a pattern — a constant stream of bills, and each one weakens public schools.”
Legislative Republicans contend that traditional public schools have other sources for capital improvements that charter schools don’t have.
Public school advocates replied that those sources are stretched and inadequate to serve the mandate to build schools when and where they’re needed — a mandate charter schools don’t face.
Castor said she’s getting involved in a state issue as a congresswoman because the federal government provides substantial amounts of money for schools, and because, “As a parent, I’m angry.”
She noted she has children both in public and private schools — one daughter a junior at Robinson High and one an eighth grader at St. John’s Episcopal.
“Most parents don’t understand what’s happening at the state level,” she said, “but if you ask them, ‘Does your school need repairs,’ they say yes.”
Castor held a news conference in front of Wilson Middle School in Hyde Park, nearly 100 years old and one of 17 Hillsborough schools she said need a combined $117.4 million in renovations that aren’t currently funded.
Castor said she didn’t know exactly what repairs Wilson needs, and neither did Hillsborough school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty. The district’s five-year plan says the school needs $3.6 million in “major renovations (or) remodeling” projected for 2014-15 but not funded.
“The 5-year plan does list some work for the Wilson campus. Along with millions in dollars worth of renovation projects at other schools,” Hegarty said via email. “Some are funded. Some not.”
The Legislature allocates PECO money — “Public Education Capital Outlay” — from the proceeds of the tax on utility bills.
The fund has been shrinking because of energy conservation and declining use of land-line telephones, and because much of the money goes to repay bond issues for past construction.
In 2011 and 2012, Castor said — repeating an argument made frequently by public education advocates — the Legislature allocated all the PECO money it budgeted, $55 million each year, to charter schools, even though only about 15 percent of the state’s more than 4,000 public schools are charters.
In 2013, charters got $91 million out of about $111 million, and this year’s budget proposal in the state House would give charters $100 million to traditional schools’ $50 million.
But State Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, said those figures overlook a far larger source of money available to traditional schools only — the local property taxes imposed by schools boards, roughly $2 billion statewide.
“They’re arguing over pennies while the traditional schools are getting the dollars,” Legg said.
Jim Hamilton, a veteran lobbyist for the Hillsborough schools who works in the complex world of Florida education funding, said it’s true that school districts have access to the property tax money and charters don’t. But that’s because school systems must build schools to meet growth in numbers of students, Hamilton said, and charters are built regardless of student numbers.
In addition, he said, property tax revenues are limited by declines in property values since the recession; by a decision from the Legislature to reduce the amount of tax that can be levied; and by debt service from buildings required in the growth years before the crash.
“Money actually available is severely constrained right now,” he said.