House approves tax package that forces South Florida school districts to share millions with charters

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The Florida House approved a tax package late Thursday night that would force South Florida school districts to share new tax money for teacher raises and security upgrades with charter schools, changing referendums approved by voters last year.

The House voted 69-44 for the plan as the clock neared midnight. The Senate would have to embrace the change during budget negotiations in the coming days for it to become law.

The bill could amount to a substantial financial hit for traditional public schools in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, along with districts elsewhere in the state that raised taxes last year to make security upgrades and boost teacher pay.

Supporters said charter school teachers should be entitled to money generated through tax increases. Opponents argued that voters intended for the funds to go only to traditional public school teachers.

Charter schools are independently operated schools funded by taxpayers.

Ballot language in Broward and Palm Beach counties specified that the tax increases would be used to provide raises for teachers in traditional public schools but not charter schools. Broward will share some of the funds generated through its tax increase for school safety upgrades with charter schools.

State Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, said Palm Beach County traditional schools would need to share $22 million with charter schools.

“I believe we have completely taken the will of the voters away from them,” he said.

Charter schools in Palm Beach County have filed a lawsuit seeking a share of the money.

Palm Beach County voters approved $800 million to improve school security and boost teacher salaries. Broward County voters approved a property tax increase in August that will provide an estimated $400 million over the next four years.

Miami-Dade voters also approved a tax increase. That referendum has faced criticism that the ballot language wasn’t clear on whether charter schools would be included. That district would be required to share $48 million under the tax plan approved Thursday.

Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah, said charter schools are considered public schools under state law and shouldn’t be excluded.

“What’s right is not essentially discriminating on a teacher or a student based on the institution or the school,” he said. “This language is needed to clarify and make sure going forward we have uniformity.”

The tax package has other components. It would reduce the tax rate for commercial property rentals from 5.7 percent to 5.35 percent. It also includes a continuation of sales-tax holidays for back-to-school supplies and hurricane preparedness.

sswisher@sunsentinel.com, 561-243-6634 or @SkylerSwisher



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