Pinellas charter schools stand to gain millions in lawsuits over taxes

The schools say they are owed money from a special property tax first approved by voters years ago.

Tampa Bay Times | By Jeffrey S. Solochek | February 27, 2024

One of Pinellas County’s 18 charter schools stands to collect close to $2 million from the school district after convincing a judge that it didn’t receive its fair share of the tax referendum that voters have supported since 2004.

The district could be on the hook for millions more, too, as 10 other charter schools have followed Pinellas Preparatory Academy’s lead. The seven Plato Academy schools, Discovery Academy of Science, Enterprise High School and Pinellas Academy of Math and Science Charter School sued in late December for a retroactive portion of the special property tax revenue.

Others are expected to join the suit.

They’re the latest in a string of charter schools across Florida to argue that their contracts guaranteed them a percentage of their districts’ local-option taxes. They contend they were due the money even before state lawmakers required such revenue sharing for taxes approved by voters after July 1, 2019.

Jacksonville-based lawyer Shawn Arnold previously won similar cases in Indian River and Palm Beach counties. He has based his arguments on the fact that Florida law said charter schools get funding based on their sponsoring school district’s “current operating discretionary millage levy,” and it was written into their contracts that way.

He argues that the levy by definition includes revenue from referendums. Yet Pinellas did not give any of its charter schools any referendum funds until after the Legislature mandated it.

Arnold called it a breach of contract, and said Pinellas should have to provide Pinellas Prep its per-student share from the four years after 2016, when voters approved an extension of the tax. Pinellas Prep has just under 800 students.

In a Feb. 12 hearing, Pinellas County Circuit Judge Amy Williams sided with the charter school, both Arnold and Pinellas School Board attorney David Koperski said.

“Essentially, we know we’ve lost the bulk of the case,” Koperski said.

The sides are awaiting a final order from Williams in the case, which was filed in September 2021. In the meantime, Koperski has asked the school board to hold a closed-door meeting on March 20 to discuss the litigation.

During that session, board members are expected to review whether to appeal the eventual ruling in the Pinellas Prep case, as well as how they want to deal with the challenge from the additional charter schools in light of the first outcome.

“We are considering what our options are,” Koperski said.

If the district winds up sending past shares to the charter schools, it won’t be using actual referendum funds. Though the tax has generated tens of millions of dollars annually — the current budget anticipates $67 million in collections — the money doesn’t carry over from year to year.

The payment would have to come from the district’s reserve accounts or another part of its operating funds. That means the award could cut into other programs or services.

The district has a $1.77 billion budget for the 2024 fiscal year.

Eighty percent of the referendum revenue is to supplement teacher pay, with the rest supporting arts programs, technology and literacy. It’s not to be set aside for future expenses. Charters are expected to use the money for the same types of items, as described in the ballot language, but the district has no controls to force the issue.

Pinellas charter schools have been receiving money from the referendum since the district began collections for its 2020 referendum renewal. In the current fiscal year, several of the schools participating in the lawsuit have not yet put any of their share toward teacher pay, according to district records.

The school board is preparing to seek voter renewal of the referendum again in November. It would include revenue sharing with charter schools.

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