The above video contains my complete comments on the lack of taxation. Please watch for context for what is detailed below.

It is no secret that school districts all across the Sunshine State have been forced to squeeze blood from a stone by the Florida Legislature for over two decades, and especially since the Great Recession. As noted in the first “Numbers Don’t Lie” piece, Florida went from 27th in per-pupil spending in 1998 to 44th in 2018. Had we kept pace with inflation alone from 20 years ago, Florida would need to spend $9,913 per student. Instead, we currently spend $7,408.

But it’s far worse than simply not keeping pace with inflation. When Ernest Hooper and I were interviewing candidates at the Tampa Hob Nob a few weeks ago, HD64 Rep. Jamie Grant–by his own admission–stated that the three areas of the economy that have actually outpaced inflation were health care, higher education and K-12 education. This effectively compounds the problem, because not only has the Florida Legislature refused to make a meaningful investment in public education, their decision to be parsimonious has made the reduced spending power of those scant dollars that much more signficant (assuming his statement is true).

Hillsborough County is not the only county seeking tax referenda. It’s happening all over the state, which John Romano wrote about recently in the Tampa Bay Times. Going back to this past March, citizens of various counties are 12 for 12 in voting for some type of tax referendum to support their schools. Clearly voters are starting to understand that Tallahassee has gotten us all into these messes because of its ideological zeal for reducing taxes.

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The Great Taxation Paradox: No one wants to pay, yet we need the services they provide.

People who stand against the tax referenda do so for two principal reasons: 1) they claim “we’re taxed too much already”; 2) they believe Hillsborough County Public Schools has mismanaged its funds. Let’s examine these claims in detail:

“We’re Taxed Too Much Already”

Regarding the first claim, this is typical response from just about anyone when the subject of raising taxes is mentioned. The facts, however, do not support this claim. If anything, we are taxed too little in a state that is experiencing such rapid population growth. The lack of taxation is directly linked to: the unwillingness to investment in public education by the Florida Legislature, resulting in students and staff sweating in schools; the traffic congestion we get caught up in on a daily basis; why Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has one of the lowest deputy-to-citizen ratios in the state, etc. Simply put, there’s not enough money to go around.

Mitch Perry’s excellent piece in The Florida Phoenix last month detailed why so many counties are seeking various school and transportation referenda and, most notably, linked this report that highlights two key facts that were addressed during my comments to the school board:

1. Florida ranks 49th out of 50 states when it comes to “tax burden” (i.e. per-capita tax revenue generation).

2. Hillsborough County ranks 52nd out of 67 counties in Florida, which means we have the 15th lowest tax burden in the second lowest state in the U.S.

To say that “we are taxed too much already” is a preposterous statement that clearly ignores these facts and traffics in hyperbole when one considers the actual numbers.

HCPS Mismanages Its Funds

When it comes to the second claim about HCPS mismanaging its funds, it must be addressed in two parts. First, there are the optics of some of the board’s more questionable spending decisions over the last three years. Many critics often cite spending nearly a million dollars on the Gibson Report, nearly a million dollars for new school board offices/relocation of Human Resources from its original location to the Instructional Services Center, remodeling/refreshing the audio-visual equipment in the board room, etc. All told these items add up to perhaps $3 million across the last three years, which amounts to approximately 0.00033% of its total annual budget per year.

This is clearly a case of picking out a few trees while missing the entire forest.

Fiscal Stewardship
It took many painful cuts to get to this point, but Hillsborough citizens should be reassured that HCPS is doing its best with what little funding it receives from both state and local sources.

In truth, however, Hillsborough County Public Schools has done a great job of reigning in its deficit spending during the same period. This fact is all the more amazing when one considers the significance of this in light of continually declining purchasing power when dollars are adjusted for inflation. Many citizens of the county, for instance, may not realize that there has been a sharp reduction in “PECO” funding (Public Education Capital Outlay, the source that pays for installation and maintenance of HVAC systems, building and repairing schools, upgrading technology, etc) for several reasons:

1. At the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, the Florida Legislature–the governing body that effectively caps the tax rates that can be applied by school boards–reduced the millage rate from 2.0 to 1.5. Despite the economy recovering and now thriving, Tallahassee has never raised the millage rate back to pre-recession levels.

2. In addition to the millage rate never being restored, outgoing Speaker of the House, Richard Corcoran, famously quipped “Hell, no” in 2017 when asked if the Legislature would leave tax rates alone and allow rising property values to raise additional funds for education. Despite the Senate being okay with such a sensible compromise, the Grover Norquist anti-tax zealots in the House held firm and rolled back the rates even more.

3. Much of the revenue generated for PECO comes in the form of utilities taxes, including landline telephones, which hardly exist outside of businesses any longer. Therefore, a lot less money is going into those particular coffers at the state level.

Put this all together and what we get is a perfect fiscal storm that looks like this chart.

Capital Funding History
And people wonder why there is no money to fix A/C or otherwise repair our schools

While no one ever likes paying taxes, I would argue that there is a cost of paying too little. Having lived in Florida for just over 20 years now, I have watched our schools deteriorate and our roads fall apart while simutaneously becoming more clogged thanks to two decades of rampant, unchecked sprawl that has had little oversight and even less funding devoted to overcoming these challenges. I would highly encourage anyone who is reading this and lives in Hillsborough County to share this information with friends/family and vote for both of these referenda so that our citizens no longer have to live with the disastrous decisions being made by the Florida Legislature.

Furthermore, especially when it comes to the school district referendum in particular, please bear the following in mind: 1) the referendum can only be used for capital expenses; 2) there will be an oversight committee comprised of six citizens who have no connection to the district and will oversee how the money is spent on projects; 3) for the average Hillsborough citizen, the additional tax will mean about 17 cents per day. Undoubtedly, there will be naysayers who still want to vote no for their own personal reasons regardless of these facts. To them I paraphrase Voltaire by saying we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Our students, our schools, and our future depend on it.

Referendum Details
For more details, click here.

 

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Waterset, the newest Charter Schools USA located in Apollo Beach, Hillsborough County

Two weeks ago today, on June 28th, I attended my first Charter Schools USA board meeting at Waterset, the newest CSUSA school that was built in the Waterset development on the south side of Big Bend Road in Hillsborough County. Nestled among a sprawling development that includes a clubhouse and homes for the upper-middle class residents of the area, Waterset is a handsome facility with state of the art technology and classrooms that are surely meant to lure in unsuspecting parents who only want the best for their children.

Before getting to the meeting itself, let me unequivocally state that I am not opposed to charter schools or school choice on principle. As an International Baccalaureate teacher at an A rated magnet school here in Hillsborough County, it would be dishonest of me to take a stand against school choice when I work at a choice school. And if the Florida Legislature adequately funded public education here in this state so that all choices could receive equal funding, I would probably have little to rail against.

But this is Florida, after all, and our elected officials clearly have a pet project of underfunding traditional public schools while shoveling money at charters and vouchers. So rail against this inequity I must.

 

When Al Shanker first proposed the idea of charter schools in 1988, they were meant to be a place that allowed teachers to take control and offer innovative approaches to students who struggled with traditional education. He wanted professionals who knew best to be unencumbered by bureaucratic red tape, allowed to propose and administer their own programs, and flourish alongside students who needed their help. It’s a noble idea, yet one that has been co-opted and corrupted by corporate interests.

For those who are unaware of the charter taxpayer scam being perpetuated by several privately held companies—the two largest of which are Academica and Charter Schools USA—the following is a brief primer (although you can listen to this excellent podcast with Pat Hall to gain a deeper understanding):

In 1996, Florida approved charter schools as an alternative to traditional public schools. By law, these schools are considered non-profit just like their traditional counterparts and are funded with taxpayer dollars. Many of the early charter schools were small operations set up by parents or other community members who wanted to serve niche student populations who struggled in traditional settings, just as Shanker had first proposed (Pepin Academies and F.A.C.E. are good examples of charters that are genuinely non-profit here in HCPS).

Somewhere along the way, however, this model has been perverted due to a loophole in the legislation, which has allowed for-profit charter management companies to create an industry that is bilking Florida taxpayers to the tune of tens (if not hundreds at this point) of millions of dollars per year. In essence, this scam works with three key players: real estate, construction, and the for-profit charter management companies such as Academica, Charter Schools USA, Charter School Associates, etc. These companies have numerous subsidiaries that allow them to rig the game at the expense of us all. One LLC will purchase the land for cheap, another LLC will build the school, and, after the for-profit company has installed a technically “non-profit” board, this board effectively turns around and pays the for-profit management company for back office services, “management fees”, and exorbitant rental-lease agreements that are typically astronomical compared to what other buildings in the area receive on a per-square-foot basis. In the end, on average, these companies end up siphoning off nearly HALF of the public dollars meant for students and classrooms.

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Ryan Construction works alongside Red Apple Development, the construction LLC of CSUSA

Worst of all, Tallahassee’s incestuous relationship with these for-profit charter management companies are a direct result of the legislation we have seen in the last two years under House Speaker Corcoran. Manny Diaz, for example, one of the principal architects behind HB7069 that ensured more money was devoted to charters, draws a six figure salary for Doral College, a for-profit institution affiliated with Academica, the largest of these profiteers in the Sunshine State. Hello conflict of interest! Florida ethics laws are clearly a joke to these elected officials.

***Back to the CSUSA Board Meeting***

When I walked into the meeting, I was greeted by Kerianne, a woman who works for CSUSA and travels the state to act as a board liaison on behalf of the company. Although technically a public meeting, it was held in a fairly small room that included a long table with chairs around it and only three empty chairs for onlookers. Clearly these meetings are not well attended, which I am sure they would prefer.

The meeting itself was fairly quick, and the people I met were all quite friendly. I have no doubt that the administrators and parent-facilitators at the table (as well as the teachers and staff who work at these schools) genuinely want the best for the students they serve. Ultimately I believe anyone who works directly with children on a daily basis are simply giving back to the next generation and their local communities. But there were a few highlights that are noteworthy:

  • The CSUSA board liaison, Kerianne, effectively ran the meeting. The board members are simply there to go through the motions and rubber stamp everything.
  • One of the items approved regarding SB7026 was described as “lots of boilerplate insert school here”, which contained information for how CSUSA would handle school safety initiatives. Some districts are allowing them to “piggy back” on their SRO or SSO initiatives, but other counties are resisting and telling the charters to pay for officers themselves (HCPS has told them that they are responsible for the cost). CSUSA plans to use their employees as guardians or contract with private security firms if the need arises.
  • Most notably, the SB7026 legislation also includes provisions for addressing mental health, but if CSUSA doesn’t receive enough funding from the state or districts for school psychologists or social workers, the schools are to kick the problem back to the parents for them to handle privately.
  • Rod Jurado, the board chair, noted that CSUSA has been speaking with Senator Bill Galvano (the Senate President in waiting) about “seeing what we can do to get into Manatee County.”
  • Board members apparently have term limits, yet were given extensions by a vote.
  • Noted that CSUSA will be opening (or recently opened) 9 new schools, serving 8500 students (sidenote: at $7408 per-student this means CSUSA will receive $63 million in new revenue, with approximately $28.3 million being added to their bottom lines—all at taxpayer and traditional public education expense).
  • A mention of growing concern about securing bonds for the new schools being built before the interest rates went up.
  • Review of school grades for the local CSUSA schools under the board’s purview; interestingly enough, they only discussed the three schools that received an A. Waterset barely earned a C with 337 points.

And, perhaps in an unintentionally ironic yet comical statement, Mr. Jurado explicitly made mention that the schools and board are non-profit, carrying on about how he nor any other board member receive a salary or stipend, and that they should all help correct this misconception when speaking to the public. I still wonder if he would have even said it had I not been in the room.

In the end, the board meeting is largely a ruse that is intended to look like an actual board meeting. Not once was there any discussion of any agenda items, and what discussion that did transpire was mostly explanations that were given to the board from the CSUSA liaison, Kerianne. Although other meetings typically revolve around “recruitment and retainment” of students to maximize profit, most of the money talk was confined to securing bonds for their new buildings, which are owned by the companies themselves and not the public that funded them. The entire enterprise is a racket, and all taxpayers in Florida should be aware and demand better from our elected officials. The Florida Legislature should legislatively close the loophole that allows these charlatans to legally steal from public education coffers that are filled with our tax dollars.

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The one page agenda, featuring a picture of a curiously homogeneous classroom

The Truth Matters
Why, yes! Yes it does, Florida GOP!

Apparently the Florida GOP is tired of getting beaten up in the media by public education advocates who cried foul after the education budget increased the base student allocation by 47 cents. Pardon the bold, italicized wording at the end of the last sentence, it’s only to ensure that specific wording is employed to clarify any misconceptions. So, to combat this endless churn in the news cycle, the Florida GOP–you know, the ones who are always touting fiscal conservatism while budgets continue to balloon for everything except public education–have decided to waste more taxpayer dollars to produce this video that up to this point has been watched a whopping 472 times.

If you haven’t seen this gem, go ahead and waste five minutes of your life so you can see for yourself just how much the Florida GOP thinks of teachers.

On the heels of National Teacher Appreciation Week, the Florida GOP likens all of us a disheveled lout named Frank. Make no mistake about it, there is no way their opening analogy can be construed any other way. Apparently anyone who has the nerve to call out the Florida Legislature is, according to the GOP, perpetuating a “myth.”

For those who are unaware of the etymological roots of that word, it simply means “story” (and nothing more) in ancient Greek. We all tell stories, and this is the Florida GOP’s attempt to craft a narrative of convenience that clearly demonstrates their disdainful views about teachers, teachers’ unions, and our profession in general.

At the end of the video, when the narrator (myth-maker?) says that “the truth matters”, he talks about facts being stubborn things. So here are a few of which the general public should be aware:

1. 2007-2008 per-pupil spending was $7,126; next year’s will be $7,408. 11 years later, not even $300 higher. Can’t ignore inflation and the declining purchasing power of the almighty dollar…adjusted for inflation we should be at $8,311 just to have kept up.

2. But wait! It gets even better! As this chart indicates, Florida spent $6,443 per-pupil in 1998-99, which was 20 years ago for our Florida GOP who struggle with math and logic (trust me, I’m a 99th percentile Best and Brightest teacher!). This was just shy of the national average for per-pupil spending at the time (27th in the U.S.), and we now rank in the bottom 10% of all states in the U.S. (45th). What happened during that 20 year period?

Oh yeah, the Florida GOP took over our state government.

3. Despite all the bombastic claims of “historic”, “unprecedented”, “record-level” public education spending, we lag the national average by roughly $4,000, which is clearly seen in this chart (one can also see we still haven’t even fully recovered from the Great Recession, one of the many reasons we’ve had teacher walkouts/strikes erupting in GOP-led states). Also, as another stubborn/fun fact, if we kept up with inflation from our 1998-99 spending, we would need to spend $9,913.

National Average

The fact of the matter is that the Florida GOP’s little video isn’t fooling anyone, least of all public education advocates. But it’s clearly a message intended to be seen by “working Floridians”, you know, that 45% of Florida’s population that is considered “working poor” and has clearly prospered so much under the Rick Scott administration, especially in rural counties where they have been left even further behind than before he began his tenure.

Hate to be the bearer of bad news, Florida GOP, but the only ones who are in the myth-making business is your party.

And, no, I’m not a Democrat or whatever else you’d like to call me in case you want to jump straight to ad hominem attacks.

P.S. – This is my favorite scene in the entire video. What the Florida GOP unwittingly included was a meeting of Academica, Charter Schools USA, and Charter School Associates, three of the largest for-profit charter management companies who all donate heavily to the Florida GOP to ensure they will continue to siphon off tens of millions of dollars from the kids and classrooms to pad their profit lines. Sorry/not sorry about that stubborn little fact too.

For-Profit Charters
This message sponsored by the Florida GOP and their For-Profit Charter Management Overlords

Pat Hall Pic
Pat Hall (second from left), the Education Committee Chair for the League of Women Voters, Hillsborough County Chapter

This episode of the Teacher Voice podcast focuses on one of the most critical issues facing the Sunshine State: the citizens and taxpayers of Florida being defrauded by the for-profit charter management corporations.

The guest on the podcast is Pat Hall, a retired public educator now turned public education advocate. Pat, along with other key players in the League of Women Voters, is on a mission to expose the fraudulent ways that these for-profit management companies keep nearly HALF of the money that is meant for students in the classrooms. Our discussion covers how these companies bilk the taxpayers while peddling influence at the state and local levels. Please listen and be sure to share with other concerned citizens and public education advocates!

If you’d like to learn more about this situation, Like or Follow the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County on Facebook,  and be sure to click any of the linked articles below the LWV logo:

LWV Logo

 

2014 investigative piece by Noah Pransky of Channel 10 News about how Charter Schools USA were charging exorbitant rents and nearly had their charters pulled by Superintendent Elia

The League of Women Voters Education Blog curated by Dr. Sue Legg from the University of Florida (this link will open up to a post about for-profit charters)

An interim report written for the LWV by Pat Hall and Dr. Sue Legg about the business practices of Charter Schools USA

“Charter School Explosion” – A 7 part series written by Pat Hall and published exclusively in La Gaceta. All of these pieces are highly informative, but if you only have time for one, be sure to read part 5, “Following the Money,” which was featured by Diane Ravitch on her own education blog.

Charter School Explosion – Are They Fulfilling the Promise? (Part 1)

Charter School Explosion – Are They Fulfilling the Promise? (Part 2)

Charter School Explosion – Are They Fulfilling the Promise? (Part 3)

Charter School Explosion – Doing It Better

Charter School Explosion – Following the Money (MUST READ!)

Charter School Explosion – Accountable to Whom?

Charter School Explosion – On the Fringe of Legal?

Publisher’s note/two minor corrections: 1) SLAM stands for “Sports Leadership and Management”; 2) Hillsborough County School Board member for District 1, Susan Valdes, received $12,000 total (not as in a single day) from for-profit charter management companies or people during the last election cycle. $6,000 came on a single day (5/25/16), and the three individual checks I reference from John Hage (CEO of CSUSA), Charter Schools USA, and Red Apple Development were all donated on 12/17/15. You can find campaign contribution records for her or any elected official in Hillsborough County by clicking this link here.

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Whistleblowers serve an important function in a free and democratic society. They serve as a bulwark against corruption and unethical behavior, and are a voice for the masses who feel powerless to fight back. And, more often than not, they carry on this important work anonymously.

Governments recognize and respect the work that these people do, which is why we have legislation at both the state and federal levels to protect those who have the courage to stand up and speak out against those who unscrupulously wield their power. These people should be commended for taking on the injustices found in both the private and public sectors.

It was alarming, then, to witness the unfolding of events at last night’s school board meeting here in Hillsborough County. For those reading beyond our borders, a popular local Facebook page, the Hillsborough County School Board Whistleblower, sprouted up shortly after our previous superintendent, Mary Ellen Elia, was unceremoniously removed from her post without cause in January of 2015. Over the last three years, the page has grown a large following while being critical of several of the board members on a wide range of issues.

During the meeting, a concerned citizen named Jason Ferger addressed the board about several issues, specifically the lack of transparency in their dealings with one another, which should happen “in the sunshine” according to state law. It was at the end of his address that one of our school board members, April Griffin, outed him as being the administrator of the Whistleblower page while simultaneously dragging another school board member, Melissa Snively, into the fray, despite the fact that she was absent from the dais. It was both shocking and unprofessional to say the least.

To be honest, Mr. Ferger may or may not be the person I interviewed a couple of months ago over the phone. The more important point is that, based on what I gleaned from our discussion, the Whistleblower is more than any one person at this point–it is a movement. And this movement is comprised of any and all stakeholders who are concerned about the surfeit of challenges facing our school district here in Hillsborough County. From what he described, the page routinely receives dozens of tips in any given week, and anyone who has sent along tips or helped dig through records requests to put together the facts may as well be the Whistleblower him/herself.

Which makes me the Whistleblower, too.

Over a year ago, I received a tip from a friend who told me that the district was purchasing 8,000 laptops. We apparently were about to significantly overpay for them because one of our other school board members, Susan Valdes, questioned the item and had it pulled from the agenda before a vote. Summation: the contract went to a local company whose CEO donated $1000 to her most recent election campaign. So I passed along the tip and then got an email back asking if I could help.

Attached to this email were pages upon pages of emails, purchase orders, bidding sheets; it was mind-boggling to behold at first. Relishing the opportunity to do some investigative work, I dug in, sifted through all the information, organized it onto a spreadsheet, and then sent it back. After a few more email exchanges, we were able to create a timeline, and then the page took the information public.

It has since been accepted by the Florida Commission on Ethics, and the investigation is one of two that are currently on-going (as far as I know).

My point is this: whoever you are, dear reader, you are powerful. We all are. As I said to someone last night, anyone who is helping to provide greater transparency by holding democratically elected officials accountable to their citizens is the very definition of what it means to be a good American. We have a right and responsibility as citizens of the United States to be informed, engaged, and acting on our civic duty. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I am the Whistleblower.

And if you have ever helped that page and the cause, then so are you.

We are all the Whistleblower.

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#TimeToResign

While I highly doubt School Board Member Valdes will take this second call for her resignation seriously due to her megalomania, I hope you will listen to this very brief (4 minute) podcast as to why she needs to be removed from her District 1 seat.

Please share with others and use #TimeToResign

Oh, and if you’re interested in reading through the recall statute yourself, you can find it by clicking this link: Recall Statute

Thanks again for listening, everyone; have an awesome weekend!

TimeToResign