U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor upset with Florida Republicans over maintenance funding in public schools

04/14/14 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: PECO, public schools, education, kathy castor, Mark Danish, PTA


U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) is joined by Florida Rep. Mark Danish (D-Tampa) in front of Woodrow Wilson Middle School to demand more even funding between public schools and charters.

photo by Janelle Irwin

Seventeen schools in Hillsborough County have unfunded maintenance projects totaling more than $100 million. During a press conference in front of Woodrow Wilson Middle School in South Tampa Monday, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor rallied against budgets passed by the state House and Senate that would allocate more money for repairs to privately run charter schools than to traditional public schools.

“We’re here today to report a theft. There has been a theft of tax dollars from our public schools.”

The funding in question is Florida’s Public Education Capital Outlay program, or PECO. The House budget this year would fund $50 million to public schools, but twice that to charters. One of the main differences between the House and Senate versions of the budget, is PECO. The Senate budget would only provide $90 million in PECO funds with more than half going to charters.

“So, it’s a very unfair balance that’s happening.”

That’s State Representative Mark Danish, a Democrat. The disparity is ongoing. In 2011 and 2012, the program didn’t fund public schools at all while $55 million were allocated to charter schools. Last year public schools got a little relief with $14 million, but that paled in comparison to the $91 million given to charters.

“So, basically, while we let our public schools decay, the charter schools get to play.”

And that’s a problem for Danish.

“Unfortunately, with charter schools, some of them are run by private management companies and if something happens to that school, that public money, the taxpayers’ money, will actually go to private hands to be sold off.”

Danish sees the continued disparity between PECO funding for charters and traditional public schools as part of an ongoing effort by the Republican-led legislature. He pointed to repeated pushes by his conservative colleagues to increase charter schools and voucher programs that provide scholarships for students to attend private schools.

“But it seems there’s a constant number of bills that comes through and each one weakens the public schools a little bit more and it’s a jab here and a jab there.”

Danish spoke about it on the House floor last week. One point caught Representative Castor by surprise.

“Did I hear you correctly that because of Republican legislators and Governor Scott are asking local school districts to raise taxes?”

“Yes they are. That was what was said on the floor. I was told that they could levy their finances which basically means to raise the amount of money that the public schools get from the public.”

Criticism of the state’s PECO funding spreads to the Parent Teacher Association. Linda Kearschner is head of the statewide resolutions committee.

“When we look at this beautiful school behind us, what a shame if it crumbles around our students. Are they going to be able to learn adequately in that kind of environment?”

Even though the funding issue has become partisan, Kearschner says that’s not the case with the PTA which is a non-partisan group of parent volunteers.

“And that includes children in traditional public schools, in magnet schools, in charter schools, in all schools. The fact of the matter is, that schools that are traditional public environments have been left out of the funding equation with PECO dollars over the last couple of years.”

A group of three people in yellow shirts with the words, “Equal Opportunity” showed up during the press conference. Catherine Durkin-Robinson was one. She’s a political organizer with the group Step Up for Students which provides scholarships through corporate tax incentives to low income students to attend private schools. Durkin-Robinson wouldn’t take a stance on the PECO issue, but said her group showed up to be the voice for students in poverty who she says aren’t represented by elected officials like Kathy Castor. She did suggest the state use savings from the voucher program to better fund maintenance in schools.

“We have scholarships that go to our students. Florida spends – I don’t know the exact amount – I think it’s a little over $6,000 per student. Our scholarships are $4880 per student so there’s a savings there. I want to say we saved Florida last month, maybe $56 million; something like that.”

Other lawmakers have suggested restoring PECO dollars to public schools by using some of the state’s budget surplus. U.S. Rep. Castor closed off by reiterating what a crime it is that the state continues to fund private companies over public schools.

“As I said before, this really appears to be an ongoing theft of our dollars. I’m going to go talk to the school resource officer. If a student was here on campus and they were pick pocketed, that person that pick pocketed them would be arrested. Right?”

In his proposed budget Governor Rick Scott suggested funding PECO to the tune of $80 million for public schools and just over $90 million for charters.

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