TALLAHASSEE — In the second similar decision in little more than a year, an appeals court ruled Wednesday that charter schools are entitled to receive a cut of property-tax money approved by Miami-Dade County voters for improving teacher pay and school safety.
A three-judge panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned a circuit judge’s decision that said the Miami-Dade County School Board did not have to share the money with charter schools operated by the city of Aventura and Archimedean Academy, Inc.
The Miami-based appeals court cited a February 2021 ruling by the 4th District Court of Appeal in a similar dispute in Palm Beach County. The Florida Supreme Court in September rejected a request by the Palm Beach County School Board to consider the issue.
The Miami-Dade case stemmed from a referendum that voters passed in November 2018 to levy an additional 0.75 mills of property taxes for four years to improve pay for educators and to bolster school safety.
The wording of the ballot measure did not mention charter schools, and the school board’s interpretation of state law blocked charter schools from getting a proportional share of the money, according to Wednesday’s ruling. Charter schools are public schools but are operated by entities outside of the regular school system.
In 2019, the Legislature changed state law to say that funds from such referendums will be shared with charter schools.
Wednesday’s ruling said the school board argued that “the 2018 referendum’s omission of a reference to charter schools indicates that revenues generated from the ad valorem tax levy do not have to be shared with charter schools. We disagree.”
One difference with the earlier case was that the wording of the Palm Beach County referendum specifically said money would not go to charter schools. But Wednesday’s ruling said the difference in wording between the Miami-Dade and Palm Beach referendums “is one of no distinction.”
“The language of the Palm Beach County referendum specifically excluded charter schools, while the language of the Miami-Dade referendum excluded charter schools by omission,” said the ruling, written by Judge Eric Hendon and joined by Judges Edwin Scales and Bronwyn Miller. “The result is the same. The school board’s refusal to share with Miami-Dade charter schools those referendum funds generated from the ad valorem tax levy violates the clear mandate of (a section of state law), which requires that ‘students enrolled in a charter school, regardless of the sponsorship, shall be funded as if they are in a basic program or a special program, the same as students enrolled in other public schools in the school district,’ and that funding of charter schools must be on a pro-rata share based on the number of each school’s weighted full-time equivalent students from ‘funds from the school district’s current operating discretionary millage levy.’”
The ruling sent the case back to circuit court to determine when money will start to be shared.