Facing political pressure and a legal threat, Palm Beach County public school leaders are considering giving charter schools a slice of a $150-million-a-year property tax increase if it is approved by voters.
After days of behind-the-scenes debate, school district officials this week quietly removed language that explicitly excluded charter schools from the proposed tax increase, clearing the way for charters to benefit if school board members sign off Wednesday and voters support the tax hike in November.
If approved, the new proposal would mark the first time the school district has agreed to share tax proceeds with the county’s 48 charter schools. In the past, the district routinely blocked charters from benefiting from school tax referendums, and last year it sued the state to avoid sharing money with them from a separate property tax.
The turnaround reflects the high stakes of the school district’s proposal, which asks voters to quadruple a special property tax to raise money for security, mental health services and higher teacher salaries.
District officials had deliberated for weeks giving charter schools some extra money for school security if the tax increase in approved.
But they had not intended to give charters a direct share of the proposed tax hike until the threat of legal action was raised in the past week, three people familiar with the internal deliberations told The Palm Beach Post.
Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy did not want to contend with a messy legal battle that could put the initiative in jeopardy, so he agreed to remove the language excluding charters, they said.
“I think it’s the right thing, and it’s also good politics,” said Ralph Arza, director of government relations for the Florida Charter School Alliance. “I see a new superintendent trying to pass an initiative at the ballot that’s not easy to pass and putting together a coalition to do it.”
In an interview Wednesday, Fennoy said the legal concerns were only part of his thinking. He said sharing the money with charters - much of which is intended for pay for school security upgrades - is the right thing to do in the wake of the Parkland school shooting.
“The entire community is impacted by what happened in Parkland and this new reality,” he said. “And I can’t stand here as a father and say only the kids that go to my traditional schools should be protected.”
Despite the change to the language, an attorney for Palm Beach Maritime Academy, a charter school in Lantana, argued that it did not go far enough, writing that the district should make it clear in the ballot language that charters would receive a share of the money.
“It appears your client is trying to creatively exclude charter schools from receiving the funds they are lawfully entitled to receive,” Shawn Arnold, an attorney for the school, wrote to the school board’s general counsel on Monday.
“Even though the term ‘non-charter’ has been removed from the proposed language, the inclusion of the word ‘District’ still excludes charter schools and (it’s) unlawful,” the letter continued.
Whether school board members will sign off on including charter schools Wednesday remains to be seen.
Relations between the board and the county’s charter schools have become strained in recent years as board members blocked a pair of new charter schools from opening and sued to fight a new state law requiring them to share property tax revenue dedicated to construction and maintenance.
But the prospect of steering millions of dollars from teacher raises to charter schools is raising the ire of the county’s teachers union.
On Tuesday afternoon, county teachers union president Justin Katz lambasted the district’s decision to let charters take a cut, saying that the district had caved in to “litigation extortion.”
“This change comes as a result of a threat by the charter industry to file a lawsuit, delay and derail the entire referendum, possibly preventing it from ever coming to the November ballot at all,” Katz wrote on Facebook .
School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw and three other board members contacted by The Post Tuesday did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday’s vote.
The special tax, which property owners would pay in addition to regular school property taxes, has been in place for decades but has to be re-approved by voters this year.
Hoping for an influx of money, the district is proposing to quadruple the tax rate, from $25 per $100,000 of taxable property value to $100 per $100,000 of taxable property value.
The hike would raise the amount collected countywide from roughly $50 million this year to an estimated $200 million next year.
But if voters reject it, the school district will lose the $50 million it depends on today to pay for more than 650 teaching positions.
Since announcing its intent to raise the tax, school district officials have received pressure from business leaders and charter school operators to include charters.
The prospect of a lawsuit emerged more recently, three people familiar with the talks said.
Charter schools are considered public schools and are financed with state and county tax dollars, but they are operated by private organizations.
In the past, the school district justified excluding them from tax referendums, including an increase in the sales tax approved in 2016, by arguing that it had no control over how charter schools would spend the money.
In his letter Monday, Palm Beach Maritime Academy’s attorney argued that recent court decisions make excluding charters illegal.
“I believe that this referendum needs to be explicit in stating that all public schools and their students will receive their pro-rata share of the proposed referendum proceeds,” Arnold wrote.
If approved, a share of the property tax increase likely would be split with charter schools based on their enrollment.
Charter schools educate about 10 percent of the county’s public school students, meaning charters could receive a $20 million slice each year.
School board members will consider putting the proposed tax hike on the November ballot at a board meeting beginning at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
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