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Controversy grows over tax referendum for arts teachers

What once looked like a quiet renewal of a property tax that pays for art and music teachers in Palm Beach County School District-run schools has developed a bit of controversy.

Officials from the growing realm of quasi-public charter schools this week again tried to stake their claim to some of that money.

“Since charter schools are public schools, charter schools should be included and receive their fair share,” Laura Hanley, director of membership for the Florida Charter School Alliance, told the school board Wednesday night. “We want our public charter school students and their parents, who are taxpayers in this county, to be recognized in this discussion.”

Charter schools have never received any of the roughly $33 million raised each year by the 25-cent property tax, which has been charged since 2008 and was overwhelmingly renewed by voters in 2010. But after charter school officials complained to the Palm Beach County Commission, which must sign off before the tax referendum goes to voters, commissioners told the school board to either cut charter schools in for a piece or make it clear in the ballot language that the money is only for district schools.

The school board on Wednesday night unanimously reworded the ballot to say the money is only for non-charter district schools and declined to give charters any money despite the pleas of officials like Bright Futures Academy charter Principal Henry DiGiacinto.

“The consequence of this referendum, the passage as written, is to ratify another four years of ‘seperate but unequal education,’” DiGiacinto said.

Officials from local parent-teacher associations also showed up opposing any notion of giving part of the tax money, which pays for about 533 art, music and physical education teachers, to the charters.

“This is about adequately funding the public school system with taxpayer dollars,” said former county PTA council president and incoming statewide PTA president Jen Martinez. “When public schools are being underfunded due to the diversion of funds this should concern all communities.”

Paul Dumars, chairman of the independent committee created by the district to oversee how every dollar from the tax referendum is spent, estimated that giving a share to charters based on their enrollment would take about $4 million or more than 60 art, music and physical education teachers away from district schools.

School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw opposed giving charters any money because he said charter schools cannot be truly held accountable by districts for how they spend taxpayer money under state law.

“We have charter schools right now that are in financial emergency and we have absolutely no way to require or monitor that those dollars would even be used for art, music and P.E.,” Shaw said. “With the big for-profit companies, that money could be rolled into their profits.”

Bright Futures CEO Kendall Artusi said the district has plenty of oversight authority with charter schools, such as numerous inspections and reviews and annual audits of their books.

Board Member Karen Brill supported keeping all the money for district schools but said there could be some political fallout from not cutting in charters when the referendum goes to the voters Nov. 4.

“We’re going to get a lot of push back,” Brill said. “We really cannot afford to lose these dollars. We can’t take it for granted that its a given.”

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