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Charter schools set to carry fight to a higher court


The end-game just got farther away for cash-starved public charter schools in Indian River County that say they are entitled to a larger share of tax revenue from the school board.  But that certainly doesn’t mean they are giving up. 

Division of Administrative Hearings Judge Cathy Sellers has decided she does not have jurisdiction to rule on a case filed by the charter schools in mid-April seeking millions of dollars in back payments.

So the charter schools are now preparing to up their legal-fee ante by filing in a higher court.

“We’re, frankly, pretty excited about this,” said Gene Waddell, president of the Indian River Charter High School board. He said he spoke with the leadership of the county’s charter schools shortly after the case was dismissed, and found a consensus to take the court case further.

“We see this issue as being too big and too important for a lower court,” he said.

“It is unfortunate that the challenge was being heard in the wrong forum,” said school board member Shawn Frost, whose children attend a charter school, and who supports the charters’ effort to get more funding. “I'm hopeful an equitable resolution that places the needs of all public school students, including our public charter school students [on equal footing], will be arrived at in the near future.”

Even though the charters – Indian River Charter High School, Imagine School at South Indian River County, Imagine Schools at South Vero, North County Charter School, Sebastian Charter Junior High and St. Peter’s Academy – are public schools entitled to tax dollars, they say they have been shortchanged by the Indian River County School Board for the past three years.

The school board came to the charter school leaders in 2012, Waddell said, and asked them to help get a referendum passed to replace and increase a school tax levy soon to expire. The leaders gave their support with the understanding charter school students would count equally with other public school students, and the money would be shared among schools on an equitable per student basis.

The referendum stated it was for “all students” in the district, and by law public charter school students are supposed to be funded equally, according to Waddell.

The 0.60 levy “passed overwhelmingly” in November 2012. Because of the levy, property owners in the county pay an extra 60 cents for each $1,000 of assessed value each year, which brought in an extra $26 million in revenue for the schools over the past three years.

So far, so good. But when it came to doling out the revenue, which is controlled by the district, the charter schools were given only 5 percent of the total collected – even though charter students make up 13 percent of the county’s student population.

Waddell said the district owes the charter schools about $2 million in back disbursements. In the coming year, the fourth and final year of the levy voters approved in 2012, another $600,000 to $700,000 will be due to the charters according to their calculation.

The charters are asking for 1 percent monthly interest calculated daily on top of the past due revenue, in accordance with a state law penalizing districts for withholding money from charter schools. “We haven’t calculated that [interest total] yet,” Waddell said.

District Superintendent Mark Rendell and the school board’s attorneys, Suzanne D’Agresta and Vivian Cocotas, say the charters are not owed any money.

The charter schools’ case appears to be the first that will test a Florida school board’s authority over the distribution of local property taxes.

“We believe this is a case of first impression,” said Shawn Arnold, the lead attorney for the charter schools, meaning “a question of interpretation of law is presented which has never arisen before in any reported case,” according to a legal definition.

The Florida Charter School Alliance could find no similar complaint among its members, and Department of Education Deputy Communications Director Cheryl Etters said she did not know of any legal or informal complaint concerning property taxes withheld from charter schools. 

The charter schools were following Department of Education protocol when they filed the case with the Division of Administrative Hearings. The department requires charter schools and their respective school districts first go to mediation, provided by the department. If mediation fails, as it did last December in this case, then going before an administrative law judge is the Department’s recommended next step.

Arnold argued this was a simple case of administering the law. He said the tax-levy laws are clear on their face that charters should share equally, and that equitable funding is further supported by the referendum’s language that “all students” would benefit from the new taxes and by the state Constitution’s requirement that a “uniform” education be provided “all” students.

But Cocotas argued the case called for the judge to “interpret” the “all” in the referendum’s language, requiring a circuit court’s authority, which persuaded Sellers, who then dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction.

"Administrative Law Judge Sellers clearly understood the limited jurisdiction of the Division of Administrative Hearings and we appreciate her thoughtful consideration of the law,” said D’Agresta, lead attorney for the school board.