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Education

New Ed Law To Reroute $17M From Duval Schools To Charters Over 5 Years

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Lindsey Kilbride
/
WJCT News
An Andrew Jackson Senior High classroom needs repairs, part of the distrct's long maintence backlog.

This month a massive state education law went into effect. Its changes include little things like allowing students to bring sunscreen to school without a doctor’s note. They also include the controversial “Schools of Hope” provision, which speeds up low-performing school closures and financially incentivizes charter schools to open up nearby.

Another change, which has largely flown under the radar through debates and protests against the law, will make Duval’s staggering maintenance woes even worse. The district will be handing over an estimated $16.9 million to charter schools over the next five years.

Local “capital outlay” property tax revenue pays for the bulk of school building projects. Now districts must share that money with charters. And though Duval County is already taxing the maximum allowed under a state cap, it still has a backlog of school building projects totaling $128 million.

The School With The Most Maintenance Needs

On a recent summer afternoon, Andrew Jackson Senior High Assistant Principal Mike Townsend was getting some work done at the school, just north of downtown Jacksonville. He said over the last year, he’s compiled a spreadsheet of a couple hundred fixes needed only at his school, which has the most maintenance needs in the county.

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Credit Lindsey Kilbride / WJCT News
A window won’t completely close in an Andrew Jackson classroom.

Some problems, he said, fall to the bottom of the district’s list of priorities, like roof issues and windows.

“We have so many windows that have settled over time and they just don’t close properly,” he said.

Inside a social studies classroom, he pointed out a crack in the tile, a window that won’t completely close and a water stain on the ceiling.

“It’s not just the fact that it destroys the tile, but it also creates mold issues as well,” Townsend said.

He said not every classroom in the school is this bad, but most have at least small issues — understandable for a nearly 90-year-old building.

District Superintendent of Operations Don Nelson said Duval’s average school age is 56.

“Our biggest critical need is windows, roofing and air conditioning,” he said.

Repair Instead Of Replace

Duval expects the local tax will bring in about $92 million designated for maintenance, building and technology projects during the upcoming school year. But a third of it is already earmarked to pay down debt, and $2.4 million of it will now have to go to charter schools, pending final clarification of a state funding formula. The district is also receiving about $4 million for projects from a separate state Public Education Capital Outlay fund, which hasn’t always happened in past years.

Still, he says, “We have about $1.2 million in our air conditioning budget, but our air conditioning need for this year has been $9 million. We’re going to spend more money maintaining the systems we have in lieu of replacing systems, very similar to a decision a homeowner would have to make.”

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Credit Lindsey Kilbride / WJCT News
A floor tile is cracked in an Andrew Jackson classroom.

School Board Chair Paula Wright said repairing systems that will continue to break wastes money, but the district often can’t pay for outright replacements.

“It’s aggravating because you know better, but you can’t do any better,” Wright said.

She said because of the maintenance backlog, the district can’t even afford to open two new K-8 schools in Mandarin and Oceanway it had been planning and the state had approved.

“That’s not even on the back burner anymore, the idea of building those K-8s,” she said.

As district officials project the maintenance backlog could grow to almost half a billion dollars in more than 10 years, Wright said Duval can’t afford to lose a dime. And general revenue won’t be much help because a budget shortfall last year is already causing the district to cut programs.

“The two areas that will not suffer are resources for academics and resources for ‘safety-to-life’ measures,” critical needs like plumbing and electrical systems, Wright said.

Charters Will Get A Piece Of The Maintenance Pie

Charter schools are tuition-free and public, but they’re privately managed. Proponents of the new law say they’re just another choice for parents and deserve district resources.

But Wright argues they’re playing by a different set of rules. “I would agree that any student that’s in a building that’s funded by public dollars should receive adequate dollars, but on the other end they should also be held to the same standards,” she said.

For instance, charters don’t have to adhere to the same building requirements as traditional schools — for example, they’re not required to build sidewalk coverings like other schools are, she said

She also argues it’s not fair to taxpayers that public money would be used to improve a privately owned building, which could then be sold, with no profits going back into the public coffers.

Duval has 30 charters, so the law is hitting harder than in places like smaller St. Johns County, which has fewer than 200 students in three charter schools. District Chief Financial Officer Michael Degutis said last year that district collected more than $34 million in the local tax, and it estimates it will share a maximum of $50,000 with charters.

“The charter impact here is very minimal, he said.

‘Because It’s Good For Kids’

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Credit Lindsey Kilbride / WJCT News
Andrew Jackson students will get to eat in a remodeled cafeteria when they come back to school next month.

At Jackson High, despite all of its issues, students will get to eat in a remodeled cafeteria when they come back next month, thanks to a separate state funding program.

The lunchroom now looks like a hip restaurant with high-top bistro tables, more lunch lines, and a special senior room.

Nelson said the goal is for students not to notice the district funding woes.

“We don’t look at how old the school is and say, ‘Does that make financial sense to invest this much money in a building that is 70 years old?’ We put it in because it’s good for kids,” he said.

Duval Board Chair Wright said she’d like lawmakers to better fund public education in general. But absent that, many school officials hope the new law will be found unconstitutional, as other Florida districts are suing the state over it. The Duval School Board is considering whether to join in their legal battle.

Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at lkilbride@wjct.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.