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Rep. Fresen's school capital funding reform bill ready for Florida House floor


After more debate, a contentious plan to reform how traditional public schools and charter schools get money for capital costs -- and how they can use those dollars -- is on its way to the Florida House floor for consideration.

The House Education Committee advanced the proposal by Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen on Wednesday morning by a 13-4 vote. Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, joined Republicans in support, while the rest of the panel's Democrats opposed it.

It was the second and final hearing for Fresen's proposal since it was amended onto a related education bill last week by the House Appropriations Committee.

Fresen's proposal (in HB 873) is two-fold. Primarily, it calls for reining in school districts' spending on capital costs, by holding all available revenues -- including locally raised dollars -- to a state cap on what it costs to build the space for each student. Fresen has presented data showing what he calls excessive cost-overruns by districts in the past 10 years, findings that superintendents argue are too simplistic.

"If, at whatever point, the locals are not dealing with that, we need to create a system where that doesn’t happen anymore," Fresen said.

The more controversial part of the proposal would force districts to share some of their local tax revenue with charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.

Fresen said his goal is equitable funding for charter schools and he's offering "a formula that’s blind to politics."

Districts have the option to share local dollars with charters under current law, but Fresen said only five districts have exercised that ability.

Charter schools have gotten the lion's share of state capital dollars in recent years, but when considering local property and sales tax funding, total capital dollars for conventional schools outweighes what charter schools have gotten, according to data Fresen provided data to the Herald/Times. The data also shows capital funding per student has declined for charter schools in recent years, because state dollars haven't kept pace with enrollment growth.

Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, said it was "troubling" that the charter school component -- and another amendment added Wednesday -- "loaded down" what he said are good provisions to rein in district cost-overruns on maintenance and renovation projects.

Rep. Mike LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, successfully added an amendment that would tie certain capital dollars -- those which districts experiencing high growth receive -- to the enrollment of students in alternative education programs, such as charter schools, virtual education, or voucher programs.

"I think that’s a big mistake we’re making here," Geller said. "I don’t think that that should be a criteria for us to talk about when helping districts who are seeking funds to help with high growth."

Fresen said he supported the amendment because it would recognize small districts that "have exhausted and opened up all choices but still can't keep up" with capital project demands.

Several superintendents last week spoke in opposition to Fresen's bill, which has support from organizations that represent the state's 650 charter schools.

Republicans also praise it for the fiscal responsibility they say it would impose on district spending.

"We look sometimes for excuses why someone added more money than they should have... This is taxpayer money, every bit of it," said Rep. Marlene O'Toole, R-The Villages, the committee chairwoman. "The numbers are really very clear: We are overbuilding. People are making money off us."

The Senate offered a counter-proposal last week to Fresen's idea. It keeps the limitations on districts' construction spending but would restrict which charter schools could receive state capital dollars.

It changes the funding formula to give preference to those charters that help mostly impoverished children or those with disabilities. By comparison, Fresen's proposal keeps the formula but changes some of the criteria under which charter schools are eligible for state funding.

Fresen's intentions for the legislation have been called into question; he works for an architecture firm that specializes in building charter schools and his sister and brother-in-law are executives for the state's largest charter school operator. Fresen says there's no conflict of interest and that his dayjob has no bearing on legislation he proposes.

HB 873, as introduced 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.