Charters’ bid for more tax money seen nearing verdict
A lawsuit filed by public charter schools against the Indian River County School Board over the distribution of property taxes has simmered for a year and a half, but a judge’s ruling will soon settle it.
District Judge Paul Kanarek gave a final hearing to the parties last week and then instructed their lawyers to prepare draft orders by March 27. He did not state when he plans to write the final order.
Both sides agree the case revolves around an interpretation of law. “If the law were clear, we wouldn’t be here,” Kanarek said last week.
This is the first case in the state brought by any public charter school over distribution of property taxes. The tax in question is earmarked for operations and the imminent ruling will establish how the money gets divided between the charter and regular public schools in the county.
The charters say the law mandates all students get an equal portion of operations taxes, but they’re getting only 5 percent, not the 13 percent that matches their share of students in the district.
The School Board’s interpretation of the law is different. It maintains the voter-approved special tax can be distributed at its “discretion,” while other taxes set by the legislature are distributed equally among charter and traditional public schools.
Voters in 2012 approved a tax of 60 cents for every $1,000 of property value be spent on school operations. The tax went into effect July 2013 and ends June 2017. The district has collected about $30 million since the tax began and given charters less than $2 million. The charter schools say they should have received more than twice that amount, based on the percentage of students they educate, and claim the district owes them millions of dollars.
At the hearing last week, the district’s lawyer, Vivian Cocotas, said a town hall meeting was held in June 2012 to inform voters of the tax coming up on the ballot in August. Three administrators from charter schools attended and must have heard then they were only getting five percent, not a pro-rata share of the tax revenue, she said.
The time to protest the unequal distribution of funds was then, Cocotas argued. Now they have “unclean hands,” since they took the reduced share of money, she said.
The charters’ lawyer, Shawn Arnold, argued the judge should ignore this side argument, since they are claiming the district is breaking the law, essentially making them a victim, who cannot have “unclean hands” or be considered a participant in becoming a victim.
The case started a year and a half ago with a failed mediation attempt and then went to the Division of Administrative Hearings. After Cocotas successfully argued DOAH lacked authority to hear the matter, the 19th Judicial Circuit Court got the case last summer.
The charters estimate they are owed more than $2 million in withheld taxes. They are also asking for punitive interest to be applied, which, compounded daily as allowed by law, brings the possible payout to over $3 million.
If the Indian River County charters prevail, it will have statewide implications for how tax money is split between charter schools and other public schools.
Voters approved a 50-cent school tax last August, which will begin July 2017 and end June 2021, as a replacement for the current disputed tax. The new tax will be distributed among charter and traditional schools on a per-student basis, after the charters made sure the authorizing resolution states “pro-rata share.” The charters say they were tricked into believing the 2012 ballot language protected them the last time.