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Will charter school bill give away our schools? (Photos)

A bill proposed in the Florida House would require public school districts to make available "unused" public schools. See what this means in three different local examples.
A bill proposed in the Florida House would require public school districts to make available "unused" public schools. See what this means in three different local examples.
Bruce Seaman

The filing of PCB 13-01 (PCB=Proposed Committee Bill), a bill related to charter schools, would require a school district to hand over an educational building that had been used for K-12 purposes to a charter school … for free. How’s that for a sweet deal? But there is more.

[A summary of other provisions in this 36 page bill can be found by clicking here.]

The bill’s language creates an open question as to whether a re-purposed former K-12 facility would need to be made available to a charter school, and when in fact a local school district could determine the destiny of its properties and facilities.

The language is pretty simple. Specifically, the proposal would change the existing statute to read:

If a district school board-owned facility that has previously been used for K-12 educational purposes is unused, it shall be made available for a charter school’s use at no cost.

It’s quite a substantial change. To contrast, here is the existing language:

If a district school board facility or property is available because it is surplus, marked for disposal, or otherwise unused, it shall be provided for a charter school’s use on the same basis as it is made available to other public schools in the district.

Specifically applied to Marion County, consideration should be made of two former K12 facilities in Reddick as an example. The old Reddick High School on County 25A in Reddick (see pic in slideshow) is a pretty derelict building that the School Board still owns. A local outlet for Interfaith Emergency Services had operated a food pantry and thrift store there a few years ago, but were forced to relocate due to code violations. The building (or at least the gym) may now be leased to the city of Reddick. The building is certainly “unused,” as the proposal reads. What about maintenance?

The school district shall maintain the charter school facility at the same standard and level it would maintain any other district-operated school similar in age and condition … The charter school shall agree to reasonable maintenance provisions in order to maintain the facility in a manner similar to district school board standards.

The maintenance terms would first require the school district to maintain the facility, presumably passing along the cost of maintenance to the charter school, while the second sentence would require the charter school to accept “reasonable maintenance provisions.” Let’s assume the school board’s essential abandonment of the old Reddick High building precludes the ghastly cost of its revival at taxpayer expense as a charter school.

Consider another Reddick building owned by the School Board, the old Collier Elementary School on NW 155th Street (see pic in slideshow) which has been re-purposed as a bus depot. The Collier School is not the relic that the old high school is. Does its re-cycling as an administrative or support facility mean that it is “used,” or “unused” – as in “unused” for K-12 purposes and therefore available for use by a charter school? Would a school district be required to make this former K-12 facility available, even if it was being used for administrative or support purposes?

Finally, let’s consider one more facility that is known to face K-12 deactivation, Lake Weir Middle School on Sunset Harbor Road in Summerfield (see pic in slideshow). Built about 50 years ago as the original Lake Weir High, the sprawling school has become a dinosaur positioned in an out-of-the-way south county location. It may be quite a few years before a replacement is sited and built, but what happens to the old building? Does it automatically become possible inventory for a charter school? Would the School Board be required to demolish it to prevent having to hand it over, or would demolition even be permitted?

As Tallahassee seeks to dictate local school board policy, it gives a blank check to charters at local taxpayer expense – that would be you and me. This bill is another muddy and confusing instance of taxpayers getting to foot the bill so that corporate managers of charter schools can enjoy welfare benefits at taxpayer expense.

First, it is another instance of the legislature seeking to remove authority from local officials and dictate outcomes that favor the corporate privatization agenda. (Yes, charter schools are technically public schools, but they are often managed by for-profit companies like Charters, USA, and a heavyweight company like Charters, USA can use Florida law to ensure no district can actually refuse their charter request as has been proven repeatedly. Watch what happens with controversial virtual school powerhouse K12, Inc., and its rejection by Marion County School Board.)

Second, with this legislation, private corporate charter managers won’t have to worry about the capital cost of starting their charter since they can demand a local district provide space FREE. Maintenance may cost them, but no rent, no mortgage. Thank you, taxpayers, because you bought the land and paid for the property and building. How is that for a nice entitlement? No, the charter can’t sell or lease the local district property or building on its own once it takes possession, but it’s still a tremendous gift.

Third, this dictated outcome deprives the local district of recouping some of the asset value of a building and property. Shifting populations and aging buildings require replacements to be secured, often on another property with a modern structure. The costs are huge. A Star Banner article this week reported the cost of the new Legacy Elementary School in Silver Springs Shores at $20 million for an average sized school.

Finally, the existing language is fairly explicit but would be replaced by broad, inexplicit terms. Such vagueness invites lawyers to drool over costly cases which taxpayers would have to pay to defend.

There is nothing commendable about this blatantly agenda-driven form of corporate welfare. The existing statute should be more than sufficient, but apparently the corporate sponsors want the legislators that they bought to provide a better return on their investment.

The bill easily cleared its first committee.

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