School board delays decision for month on property tax increase

The Palm Beach County School Board on Wednesday night delayed by a month a decision to ask voters to raise school property taxes by $150 million a year. Specifically, they want to sort out whether the wording on the ballot should expressly give or deny charter schools a chunk of the proceeds.

School leaders began contemplating a November ballot question in the spring. But a last-minute tweak this week that dropped language barring charter schools from a piece of the pie frustrated board members who voted 7-0 to revisit the matter at their next meeting July 18.

The district must make a decision at that meeting in order to give the County Commission time to place it on the ballot.

Superintendent Donald Fennoy’s proposal would seek to quadruple the tax rate from $25 per $100,000 to $100 per $100,000.

The increase would address what leaders have described as small, inadequate increases in the education budget from state lawmakers. Of the additional $150 million a year, about $100 million would cover teacher salary matters and about $50 million would go to school security costs.

The seven board members and Fennoy agreed that they did not want to deny charter students necessary safety measures afforded district-operated schools. But they repeated longstanding concerns about difficulties overseeing how charters spend the money.

They also bristled at having the language change so close to the meeting - the result of a legal opinion that arrived over the weekend.

“Clearly, I want all children to be safe. If we include the charter schools in this referendum, we are opening the door to a place we might not want to go,” said Vice Chairwoman Debra Robinson.

Board member Frank Barbieri noted that over the years the district has lost $100 million to charters that went out of business.

But excluding charters from the cash flow raises its own risks, including the threat of a lawsuit. Winning the challenge wouldn’t be the only consideration, staff noted. If a judge were to grant an injunction in the process, the district could miss the window to put the matter to voters.

The stakes are already high.

The property tax has been in place for decades, with resounding voter approval twice in the last eight years as the money went to paying for more than 650 teaching positions in the arts and choice programs. But if voters balk at the bigger price tag this time around, not only would the district miss out on additional money, it also would lose the $50 million annually the district has used to pay for those existing positions.

Until this week, the proposal specifically denied charters a piece of the pie should the referendum pass, reflecting a history of blocking charters from collecting on previous school tax referendums. Last year, the district sued the state to avoid giving charters a cut of a separate property tax.

But days before Wednesday’s meeting, that language denying charters was deleted from the proposal.

The threat of a lawsuit influenced that change, sources told The Palm Beach Post. But Fennoy said Wednesday that in the wake of the Parkland shooting, giving charters a share of the money that can pay for improved school security is also just the right thing to do.

“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.”

The head of the county’s teachers union, Justin Katz, railed against the change in wording that gave money to the district’s public schools, which includes charters. He described it as “some sort of extortion plot.”

Katz later, however, defended the district’s track record in accounting for the way it spends money raised from both property and sales tax income when that came under criticism during public comments.

The charters likely would get a cut based on their enrollment. About 10 percent of the county’s public school students attend charters, which would translate to charters receiving about $20 million of the $200 million raised each year.

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