Opinion: Avossa Misleads Public on Charter Funding Law

This article is an opinion piece.

Superintendent Robert Avossa of the Palm Beach County School District; image copyright Warren Redlich

A few days ago the Palm Beach County School District issued a misleading press release. The release falsely suggested that recent state legislation could negatively affect the district’s credit.
It led with this big headline:

HB 7069 Could Result in Credit Downgrade

This headline was followed by this opening sentence:

Stable credit ratings for the School District of Palm Beach County and other large school districts could be at risk …

Referring to a recent statement by Moody’s, a credit rating agency, Superintendent Avossa was quoted in the press release:

“This independent analysis by Moody’s highlights one of our real concerns with this new law – the financial effect that it will have on our District, and on school districts throughout Florida,” said Dr. Robert Avossa, Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent.

These scary statements are objectively false when it comes to our school district. Even if the claims are true that the district would lose $230 million to charter schools over the next 10 years, that number is dwarfed by the $1.3 billion the district claims will be raised by the so-called Penny Tax that was approved by voters in November.
Moody’s most recent rating of the district was in September of 2016, meaning any reevaluation of the district’s credit would take into account a net gain of over $1 billion.
It is true that Moody’s suggested the charter funding law could affect credit ratings for some districts. But that statement did not take the Penny Tax into account. Avossa and the district staff all know about that tax increase and that there is no credit rating risk for our district.
We contacted the district to give them a chance to explain and defend this. The response from Leanne Evans, Treasurer is below. We do not find this satisfactory but readers can form their own conclusions.

HB 7069 requires the District to share the capital outlay tax revenue on a per student basis. The calculation takes the full amount of the capital tax revenue then deducts the amount the District needs for debt service (principal, interest and fees) based on debt outstanding on 3/1/17. The District’s capital plan assumes the taxable values will increase annually at an average of 4.5%, so the base amount to be shared will increase annually. At the same time, the District is paying off debt so the amount of debt service will decline. With those two variables, the amount we expect to provide to charters will range from $10.6 million in FY18 up to $32.7 million in FY27. The expected loss of $230 million over ten years assumes the percentage of students attending charters in Palm Beach County remains constant. If that percentage changes, the amount transferred to charters will also change.
The sales tax is dedicated to specific projects over the next ten years. Most of the sales tax money will be used for deferred maintenance and school buses. It will allow us to catch up on work that was postponed during the financial downturn and when the legislature reduced the District’s taxing authority by 25%. There is other work in the District’s capital plan that was to be funded with other funds, mainly local property taxes. This includes ongoing maintenance work so the sales tax would not be needed at the end of 10 years. The loss of $230 million is significant and will jeopardize that plan. The District is working to revise the capital plan and clearly identify the reductions that will be needed due to HB 7069.
Moody’s Investor Service issued the comment to advise investors of the challenges that all Florida School Districts will face due to HB 7069. The revenue stream used to make debt service payments is now less predictable. Additionally, they are concerned about the ability to provide the ongoing maintenance, technology and transportation for students. As revenues are reduced, they consider this to be “credit negative” just as an individual’s credit score may be reduced if they experience a pay cut. The School District of Palm Beach County is fortunate to have the support of the community, as demonstrated by the approval of the sales tax. We expect Moody’s and the other rating agencies will take that into account when they review our credit rating later this year but also expect they will question our ability to properly maintain our buildings when the sales tax expires in 2026.

We also reached out to West Boca’s school board representative, Frank Barbieri. We were told he was unavailable for comment.

Why Sue the School District?

A recent post on our Facebook page lit up with comments from readers. We posted a Palm Beach Post article about Attorney Paul Kunz, whose child attends Addison Mizner Elementary (south of Palmetto east of I-95) sued the school district over class size issues. As we understand it, his 5-year-old child is in a kindergarten class with 21 students, 3 more than the maximum of 18 set in the Florida Constitution.
Some of the comments demonstrated a lack of understanding as to why Kunz is doing this.
For example, one commenter wrote:

Dad was looking to make a quick buck off his child. Sad!

If you read the lawsuit (bottom of this article), Kunz is not asking for any money at all. It’s possible that in a case like this he could get attorney fees but he did not even ask for them. He is very clearly not doing this for money.
Another popular sentiment is that suing is the wrong way to go about it. We contacted Kunz about this and he responded:

Filing a lawsuit is definitely the only way to get the issue addressed. Last thing I wanted to do was sue my kid’s school (district). But there is no way internally to get any relief. I wrote to superintendent twice: no response. I tried to deal with other administrators and was told: we can do it this way (basically because we say so).

If the government refuses to obey the law, there really isn’t another way to address it other than a lawsuit. If you do something the government doesn’t like, you get a ticket or arrested and they make you go to court. Why is it so shocking to sue the government? If the government can’t be sued, then they are effectively above the law.
I received similar criticism for challenging a checkpoint in Coral Gables, and I will be suing them soon. So I’m sympathetic to Kunz both in suing the government and in getting this kind of criticism.
Other commenters said larger class sizes are no big deal:

The horror. My kids up north had well over 20. The teacher handled it fine. They all learned to read and write quite well.

Another commenter responded:

This class reduction act was amended to the Florida Constitution in 2002 by getting over 2 1/2 million Floridians who voted to approve it. So, if you are against class limits, you are in the minority.

Whether class size limits are wise or effective, or perhaps too inflexible, is certainly a worthwhile discussion. We know parents who are worried that their school might add a teacher to address the class size problem and then split up classes that are going well.
We contacted the school district for comment on this story and received a very limited response:

We were just served with the lawsuit. We are in the process of reviewing the allegations.

On the larger issue of school budgets, we wonder how much could be saved if we didn’t waste so much money and time doing too many tests, buying textbooks that keep getting worse, and paying administrators who manage all of this testing and textbook waste. By saving there we could hire more teachers and pay them better.

Disclosure: The author has never met Kunz and had never even heard of him before this morning. Also, some of the commenters are personal friends of the author.

Kunz’ complaint in the case is below:
[gview file=”https://westbocanews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/filed-pbsb-complaint-re-class-size.pdf”]

New Principal for West Boca High? Craig Sommer Proposed

The Palm Beach School district announced that Craig Sommer has been recommended as the new principal for West Boca High. Sommer has been principal of Pine Jog Elementary School in West Palm Beach. Pine Jog was opened in 2008 and is part of a partnership with FAU’s College of Education and the Pine Jog Environmental Education Center. The school is known for being environmentally conscious.
Sommer’s LinkedIn profile indicates he earned a Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Educational Leadership and Administration from FAU in 1997, and that he first became an assistant principal with the school district in 2008. Others have reported he’s been with the school district, possibly in another role, since 2004. He appears to be from West Palm Beach.
We were able to find some more about Sommer. Most notably:

  • Bachelor of Science Business / Finance
  • Assistant Principal of Boynton Beach High from 2008 to 2013
  • Teacher at West Boca High School during the 2006-2007 school year.

We reached out to Mr. Sommer and hope to hear more about him in the near future.