In reversal, PBC schools chief says to exclude charters in tax push

Facing pushback from school board members and the teachers union, Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy has dropped his proposal to give charter schools a share of a $150 million-a-year property tax increase if voters approve it.

The turnabout comes after board members declined last month to approve Fennoy’s last-minute recommendation that charter schools receive a slice of a tax hike proposed to raise money for higher teacher salaries, school security and extra teaching positions.

Fennoy’s recommendation in June, which came after legal threats from a Lantana charter school, was backed by an opinion from an education-law attorney who concluded that the school board faced legal risks if it excluded the county’s 48 charters.

RELATED: PBC public schools may share $150 million tax hike with charters

But the suggestion faced stiff resistance from some board members, who questioned the attorney’s legal reasoning and the proposal’s last-minute timing. Led by board member Frank Barbieri, they decided to postpone a decision until July 18.

Since then, the school district has obtained another legal opinion from a different lawyer, and this one gives the school board the go-ahead to leave charters out.

Armed with the new opinion, Fennoy now proposes that the school board carry on with its long-standing policy of excluding charter schools from its requests for voter-approved tax increases.

At stake is about $20 million a year that charter schools would be slated to receive if board members included them in the referendum to increase a special property tax and voters approved it in November.

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 reapproved 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.

On a school board meeting agenda posted online Monday, Fennoy’s administration asks board members next week to approve placing a referendum on the November ballot that raises the special property tax on behalf only of “non-charter district schools.”

The reversal is sure to be cheered by the school district’s teachers and several board members, who have a strained relationship with the district’s charter schools and expressed frustration last month at being asked to share more tax proceeds with them.

Justin Katz, president of the county teachers union, said Monday that the school district “is making the right decision in moving forward with the language originally proposed.”

But cutting out the charter schools may prompt legal challenges and the potential for dedicated opposition to the proposal from charter school supporters.

Last year, a judge required Indian River County’s school board to give the county’s charter schools a proportional share of money from a special property tax referendum. That decision has emboldened charter schools locally.

But an attorney for the Greenberg Traurig law firm who reviewed state law at the school district’s request concluded that the school board “does not have an obligation to share with district charter schools any proceeds from such a millage levy.”

The chairman of Palm Beach Maritime Academy, a Lantana charter school, vowed Monday to fight the school board in court if it excludes them, saying that doing so wrongfully discriminates against charter school students by providing their schools with less money to support their educations.

“We’re not gonna lay down for that,” said Andy Binns, the school’s chairman. “How can you say we’re gonna discriminate against this group of kids?”

Ralph Arza, director of government relations for the Florida Charter School Alliance, called the reversal “disappointing.”

“Charter schools are public schools, and they are filled with public school students and also teachers who are trying to teach public school students,” he said.

Fennoy declined through a spokeswoman to comment Monday. In an interview in June, he said that sharing money with charter schools was not just a legal strategy but the right thing to do in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, given that some of the money is intended for school safety.

“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.”

Even if charter schools aren’t included in the referendum, school district leaders have discussed providing them with extra money specifically for campus security.

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