Don’t spend that $10 million just yet, PBC schools warn charter schools

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A new law requires Palm Beach County’s public school system to share an extra $10 million with charter schools this year, but school district leaders are telling those schools not to make any spending plans just yet.

In a letter dated Aug. 25, the school district warns the county’s 48 charter schools to “refrain from pledging any and all future revenues” from the new spigot of cash that state lawmakers opened this spring.

The reason: The county’s school board and 10 others plan to sue to overturn the new state law, which for the first time requires school districts to give charters a share of the money they raise from property taxes for construction and maintenance.

The school district’s letter says that the requirement to share the money was part of House Bill 7069, a sweeping education bill passed earlier this year, and that the school board is challenging the law on constitutional grounds.

RELATED: Gov. Scott just signed HB 7069. Here’s what it does.

“If the school board’s challenge is successful, these provisions will be struck down,” Mike Burke, the school district’s chief financial officer, wrote. “Therefore the purpose of this notice is to advise you and all relevant parties to refrain from pledging any and all future revenue(s) derived from (the property tax dollars).”

Palm Beach County School District Chief Financial Officer Mike Burke. (Palm Beach Post file photo.)

Burke asked charter school leaders to sign a form acknowledging the warning and promising to alert the school district if they do intend to make plans to spend the new money.

“I agree to notify the School Board of Palm Beach County of any intent to pledge future revenue(s) derived from the discretionary capital outlay millage funds referenced under HB 7069,” the form states.

In an interview, Burke said that school district leaders “felt like we needed to put the charter schools on notice.”

“This law was just put into in place, and it is going to be challenged,” he said.

Burke said the letter was simply an effort to warn charter schools that the money they’re expecting to receive this year could be in legal jeopardy. State law requires the school district to send the money to the charters in February.

Burke said the district intends to comply with the requirement to pay out the $10 million unless a court orders it not to.

He said he was unsure whether the charters could face any repercussions from the school district for making plans to use the prospective cash to, for instance, take out loans or sign building leases.

RELATED: PBC school board joins suit over charter-friendly education law

Charters are privately operated, but school districts distribute their state money, monitor their performance and have authority to close them if they violate rules or perform poorly.

The notice has raised the ire of some charter school leaders, who say the district is trying to pressure the independently run schools to disavow any plans for spending their own money.

“It’s a little bit of bullying by the Palm Beach County School District,” said Ralph Arza, a lobbyist for the Florida Charter School Alliance. “You’re essentially saying: That money that is coming to you – we want you to commit to not using it.”

Last month the county school board voted to join several other Florida school boards in a lawsuit about 7069.

School district leaders argue that HB 7069 illegally restricts school boards’ sovereignty and improperly gives charters a portion of property tax proceeds. They allege the measure also violates a requirement that legislative bills focus on a single subject.

Charter school advocates have condemned the plans for legal action, saying that charters are entitled to a portion of the school board’s construction money since they educate public school students as well.

Arza said that the school district’s request that charter schools sign the form “puts principals in a tough spot.”

“The district is the charter authorizer,” Arza said. “They have some level of authority over you, and they’re the ones calling around saying ‘Why haven’t you returned this?’”

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