Judge rejects PBC school board request to halt payments to charters

4:53 p.m Friday, Jan. 12, 2018 Local
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A judge on Friday rejected the Palm Beach County School Board’s request to temporarily block a new state law requiring the school board to give an extra $9 million to the county’s charter schools by Feb. 1.

At a court hearing in Tallahassee, Leon County Circuit Judge James Shelfer denied the school board’s request, meaning that the board will have to distribute the money by next month, even as lawsuits over the law’s constitutionality play out, school district officials said.

The outcome was hailed as a victory by charter school leaders, who say they and their students deserve a share of the property tax revenue that the school board collects to pay for schools’ construction and maintenance.

The county has about 50 charter schools, which are privately managed but publicly financed, but officials say only about 33 are eligible for a share of the property tax money.

“I am thrilled by the ruling,” Linda Terranova, principal of Western Academy in Royal Palm Beach, said in a statement. “Every child deserves equity under the law, regardless of which public school they attend.”

“For the Palm Beach County School District to argue that they would be damaged financially as a result of a $7 million allocation to charter school students to me seems somewhat disingenuous,” said Ralph Arza, the Florida Charter School Alliance’s director of governmental affairs. “I believe they should focus their energies in the classroom, not in the courtroom.”

The school board had requested a court injunction blocking the payments, but the judge said he could not consider an injunction for technical reasons, two officials said.

The school district said in a statement that while the judge dismissed the request to stop the payments, a final hearing on the law’s constitutionality is expected to be scheduled in the next few months.

“Attorneys for the school board are reviewing all options available and will continue to take any and all legal steps in order to protect these funds,” the statement said.

A spokeswoman for state Department of Education declined to comment, saying she did not have information about the hearing’s outcome.

In a statement, School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw said that this “is just the beginning.”

“We will continue to fight to protect local school board constitutional rights to control and operate our schools, and that includes making sure that every penny is properly spent with our oversight and not put into the hands of private property owners and managers,” Shaw said.

In September, the school board filed suit against the state Board of Education and state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart over House Bill 7069, a sweeping education bill passed by state lawmakers in 2017.

The lawsuit took issue with a requirement in the legislation that school boards share property tax revenue dedicated to construction and maintenance with eligible charter schools. In its suit, the school board called the provision an unconstitutional attack on its authority to raise and spend local dollars.

“By mandating that school boards divert a portion of their discretionary millage to charter schools … (the law) unconstitutionally preclude the board from exercising its authority,” the suit alleged. The suit was filed by attorney Jon Mills of the law firm Boies Schiller Flexner. Mills did not respond to a request for comment.

School district officials had estimated that the requirement will cost the county’s public school system $10 million this year and an estimated $230 million during the next decade, which they said would imperil much of the construction and renovation work they have planned over the next several years.