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Broad changes to school construction funding to go before Florida House budget committee


The House Appropriations Committee will take up legislation this afternoon that could significantly change how public schools use taxpayer money to fund construction projects, while making it easier for charter schools to get capital dollars.

The topic of school districts' construction spending has been a flash-point between education budget committee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, and the state's superintendents' association during the past couple of weeks.

A proposed committee substitute version of HB 873 brings to fruition Fresen's promise to rein in what he and other House leaders have argued is a “disturbing pattern” of districts' “glaringly and grossly” exceeding a state-imposed cap on how much in state dollars they can spend on capital projects. About 30 percent of projects statewide during the last 10 years or so went over the cap, according to Fresen.

The substitute bill goes even farther, too, by addressing charter schools' capital needs and forcing districts to assist with funding them in addition to traditional schools.

The new language includes requiring school districts to give eligible charter schools a share of their local property tax dollars and it lowers the requirements for charter schools to be eligible for state aide.

Charter schools -- which are publicly funded but privately managed -- lack the taxing authority that districts have, and they don't get state funding for capital costs unless they have existed three years with a good track record.

The committee bill would allow charter schools to get state dollars after just two years in operation, among other new criteria.

There is about one charter school for every six traditional public schools in Florida. Charter school advocates are clamoring for an equal amount of capital dollars, although the money they've received in recent years has far outweighed what traditional public schools have gotten.

For traditional public schools, the committee's proposed substitute bill would also hamstring districts' ability to use local revenue sources on project costs that exceed the state-imposed cap. Currently, only state dollars are subject to the cap, but the proposed bill would subject all of a district's revenue sources -- including locally raised dollars -- to it.

The measure also penalizes districts that would exceed the cap, starting in 2017. If a project went over the cost "per student station" -- the space required for each individual student -- the district would be "ineligible" for certain state allocations "for the next three years in which the district would have received allocations had the violation not occurred."

The current cost per student station is roughly $21,000 for elementary schools, $23,000 for middle schools and $30,000 for high schools. The figure is adjusted annually based on the consumer price index, but Fresen argues the caps are already higher than they should be, because the baselines were set after the 2005 hurricane season when construction costs were inflated. 

Fresen first accused districts' of cost over-runs on construction projects during a House Appropriations meeting in late January, when he laid out the case for why he would be seeking these changes to rein in districts.

He and the superintendents' association traded letters last week accusing each other of disseminating inaccurate information on what districts are actually spending on capital projects.

HB 873, sponsored by fellow Miami Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., was originally intended to address regulations only for the state's "Special Facility Construction Account" -- dollars directed to eight small, mostly rural school districts that need state aide to supplement a low tax base.