Julie Delegal: Lawmakers’ school-funding sleight of hand includes mendacious math
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There’s nothing like the smell of mendacity in the morning, emanating from the Florida Times Union. Lawmakers announced last week that their education budget comprises the highest per-pupil expenditures in state history.

Last week’s to-do about per pupil expenditures is a sleight of hand meant to draw our attention away from the fact that lawmakers want to give taxpayer money to private real estate owners.  (As of this writing, however, the House and the Senate have come to a stalemate over several parts of the budget, including the education budget.)

In real dollars, not only is the newly proposed figure of $7,178.49 per pupil not record spending, it actually moves us back below 2007 levels.

Rep. Erik Fresen and Sen. Don Gaetz had announced their budget boondoggle to The News Service of Florida after a meeting they held last week, before the latest stalemate.

They acknowledged their $7,178.49 figure was a smidge less than what either the House or the Senate or Gov. Rick Scott had put forth this year.

But it still got billed as “the largest per-student funding amount in state history” by the press.

Here’s the truth: Florida’s school funding began to stagnate in 2007, under Gov. Charlie Crist, at $7,126 per student. The per-pupil figure plummeted to $6,217 under Gov. Rick Scott during the 2010-11 school year, according to an in-depth analysis provided by Politifact in 2015.

But when we take inflation into account, we see what $7,126 amounts to in2016 dollars: $8,142.41.

So for the proposed per-pupil increase to truly be “record spending,” the number would have to be at least a penny more than $8,142.41.

But that’s not all.  When we do the reverse math, that is, when we check to see what the current proposed number ($7,178.49) would be in real dollars in 2007, we actually go backwards, to $6,282.41.

Since 1999, the Legislature has waged war on public schools. Lawmakers have consistently favored, promoted and funded privatization alternatives at the expense of the public institutions that serve most of our students.

Here’s a little background from the Tampa Bay Times on the guy who controls the education-budget purse-strings for the Florida House:

“Fresen is a $150,000-a-year land consultant for Civica, an architecture firm with a specialty in building charter schools. Many of those schools were built for Academica — which has been described as the largest charter school management company in Florida and which counts Fresen’s brother-in-law and sister as executives.”

Fresen wants to give $50 million of the state’s capital spending dollars, derived from the diminishing telephone tax, to the state’s 650 charter schools, leaving only $40 million for Florida’s 3,620 traditional public schools.

Fresen also wants to require districts to share the proceeds of local school levies with charter schools, something only five of the state’s 67 counties do now.

It’s true that privately owned charter schools don’t get the capital improvement dollars raised by local property tax levies that public schools do. But do we care? Should taxpayer money be going to fund private real estate assets?

According to the Duval property appraiser’s website, using 2015 figures, 25 charter schools that receive school grades operate on 17 tax-exempt properties which total approximately $79 million in non-taxable real estate assets.

Those numbers don’t include the newest CharterSchoolsUSA building, which has not yet been appraised, and has not yet received a school grade.

The most valuable tax-exempt charter property is the site of three KIPP schools, a $15 million facility, which serves 834 students.

By comparison, excluding a school for special needs students that sits on community college property, Duval’s District 3, one of seven districts, has a similar number of schools (21) on a similar number of properties (19). District 3’s publicly owned real estate assets add up to approximately $82 million. Calculations also do not include multi-million dollar improvements to Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, as the appraisal for the school has not yet been updated.

The most valuable publicly owned school real estate asset in Duval’s District 3 is Sandalwood, valued at $9.5 million and serving 2,724 students.

The total number of students served by Duval’s privately owned charter schools on 17 properties is 12,455. Subtracting the students who were not in a school where testing was administered, that number is 10,266.

The total number of students served in Duval’s similarly sized District 3, excluding the exceptional student center mentioned above, is 23,623.

Given these numbers, in terms of real estate assets, private charter school owners are sitting on about $7,900 per student, or $6,300 per student if we include the students in schools that have not participated in the Florida Standards Assessment.

The taxpayers, by contrast, own only about $3,500 in real estate assets per non-charter, public school student.

So, for charter owners who are whining about lack of access to capital dollars, the simple answer is to do what homeowners do when they want to improve their properties—either take it out of your own pocket or get an equity loan.

Don’t ask taxpayers to bankroll your private property when Duval’s public schools, whose seven districts serve many more students, are crumbling.

(Calculations were based on enrollment data provided by the Duval County School Board in February, simulated grade information provided by the Florida Department of Education website and DCPS, and 2015 tax-exempt real estate values which are available on the Duval County Property Appraiser’s website.)


Julie Delegal, a University of Florida alumna, is a contributor for Folio Weekly, Jacksonville’s alternative weekly, and writes for the family business, Delegal Law Offices. She lives in Jacksonville, Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida. 

Julie Delegal


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