February 10, 2024

Sue Kingery Woltanski: HB109 and “State-Sponsored Pilfering” of Florida’s Public Schools

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Sue Kingery Woltanski chronicles one more way that Florida has come up with to chip away at public education. Reposted with permission. 

Last week, before Florida’s House Choice and Innovation Education subcommittee voted favorably, along party lines, on HB109, Rep. Katherine Waldron (D-93, Palm Beach) summarized her passionate opposition:

“I think it’s not really fair to chip away with all these bills, from the voucher program to some of these bills, at public schools and then turn around and say they are failing us. That is a false narrative in my mind. I have received close to a thousand emails on this bill, passionately against this bill. I have not seen one email supporting it. I am concerned, among other things, that this is going to end up being nothing more than a land grab by entities who do not have students’, parents’ and communities’ interests in mind.”

HB109 will now move on to House PreK-12 Appropriations.

HB109 allows municipalities to apply to convert one or all of the public schools in their jurisdiction to charter schools, eliminates involvement of teachers in the conversion charter decision making process and creates a process for the State to identify underutilized school district properties which the school board must, then, offer rent-free to charter schools within the district (and then, if no local charters apply in 6 months, the district must convert the property to affordable housing).

I, like Rep. Waldron, am a passionate opponent of HB109.


The current process for converting an existing public school to a charter school is outlined in Florida Statute (f.s. 1002.33). There are currently 23 conversion charter schools operating in Florida (3 percent of the total number of charter schools in the state). The application to convert a district managed public school to a charter school currently can may be made by a parent, teacher, principal, district school board or school advisory council, but must be approved by a majority of the teachers and a majority of the parents participating in the vote. Additionally, a majority of the parents must participate in the vote – meaning support from as few as 25% of the current parents are needed to trigger the conversion. To begin the ballot process, the applicant may submit a request in writing to the school administrator to conduct a vote for conversion, and the administrator must complete the ballot process within 60 days of receipt of the written request.

HB109 changes the conversion process in two significant ways.

  1. Local municipalities are added to the list of entities who can apply to convert public schools to charter schools. In HB109, a local municipality (say a town council or a county commission) could apply to convert one or all of the public schools in their jurisdiction to charter schools under a single application. Those schools would then have 60 days to complete the ballot process. (Of note, currently, local municipalities may apply to create a new charter school but not to convert an existing public school.)
  2. A majority vote of the teachers will no longer be required for ANY charter conversion to take place (whether the applicant is a municipality or not). The schools will be converted to charter schools solely on the vote of the parents whose students currently attend the school.

Florida’s largest for-profit charter chains have active lobbyists and donate large amounts of campaign contributions. The passage of HB109 could allow large for-profit corporate charter chains to convince small city councils to hand over their public schools, free of charge. There is no language describing how a local community, appalled by the actions of a few small town officials who gave away their local public institutions to for-profit entities, could regain control of their public schools.

Currently a local school community CAN apply to convert their school to a charter school, so why is this bill needed?

I can only think of 2 reasons-

  1. To remove teachers from the decision making process, though one could argue, the teachers might be most impacted by the conversion OR
  2. If you are a corporate charter chain that wants to expand without having to invest in building schools, all you need to do is flip a municipal board and that would be much cheaper than flipping a county wide school board.

HB109 was described by several Democratic committee members as part of a continued attempt to chip away at public schools and by Jacksonville collumnist, Nate Monroe, as “state-sponsored pilfering.” “State sponsored pilfering” is a perfect description.

HB109 was first heard on 1/18/24 in Choice and Innovation. The sponsor, Rep. Alex Andrade (R-2, Escambia, SantaRosa) explained he woke up a few months ago, had a conversation with a friend who disagrees with him politically on every topic, and wondered “why can’t municipalities convert public schools into charter schools?”

[I would suggest it is because Article IX, section 4(b) of the Florida Constitution says it is school boards and not local city councils who must “operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district.” This is what local school boards are elected to do.]

Andrade said he did some “research” and learned that while municipalities can apply to create a new charter school they are not allowed to apply to convert an existing public school into a charter school. He said the idea sprung from his “front row seat” witnessing the conversion process, triggered by Florida’s turnaround process, involving Warrington Middle School, in his community.

For the record, neither the teachers nor the parents at Warrington Middle School, in Escambia County, got to vote as to whether their school should be converted to a charter school. State turnaround policies forced the conversion on the community. The conversion was one of the few remaining state-mandated turnaround options available to the Escambia School Board for the school that had received “D” or “F” grades for the past decade. The only other turnaround option available was to close the school and provide bus transportation for the Warrington students to other, higher rated, district middle schools. The Escambia School Board had searched for a charter school willing to come in and manage the school for several years before Charter Schools USA (CSUSA), one of Florida’s largest (and most politically connected) for-profit corporate charter chains, applied with the full support of the Florida Department of Education and the State Board of Education (FLBOE). The FLBOE essentially adopted the conversion of Warrington Middle as a pet project. Rep Andrade blames the Escambia School Board for what he described as the “painful” and “dysfunctional” process that ensued during the contract negotiations between CSUSA and the school board. One of the largest sticking points was CSUSA’s plan to expand the school to K-12 and, with time, remove the preference for the students within the existing Warrington Middle School boundaries – which would ultimately result in the district having to provide bus transportation for those students to surrounding schools. Some students would need to be bussed to a middle school over an hour away from their community. Despite considerable pressure from the FLDOE and FLBOE to agree to CSUSA’a stipulations, the school board was adamant that the zoned students continue to have access to Warrington Middle and, ultimately, CSUSA promised to do so and the conversion agreement was made.


HB109 is not solely about Conversion Charter Schools. An amendment to the original HB109 also passed during the 1/18/24 Choice and Innovation meeting creating a process where, if a school district experiences a decline in student enrollment of one percent or more for at least two consecutive years (perhaps a hurricane, followed by a pandemic? Or a factory shutdown?), the FLDOE and the Department of Management Services is required to designate vacant school district real property as surplus and the school district must make those designated properties available to charter schools and charter school governing boards within the school district and then transfer the control and operation of that property to the charter school or the charter school governing board without charging any rental, leasing, or other usage fees. Also, if, after 6 months, no charter school takes the deal, the property must be used for affordable housing.

This is the “state-sponsored pilfering” Nate Monroe described. No teacher or parent has a say. Neither does the school board. In fact the local community has no say at all. With the amended HB109, what should be a local decision – the repurposing of public assets – will be made by bureaucrats in Tallahassee.

Rep. Angie Nixon (D-13, Duval) asked Andrade a simple Yes or No Question (You can watch the interaction at ~40:25): “If a current charter school moved into a used district building, would they be allowed to profit from selling their original property.” Andrade responded: There are so many different scenarios in that context… I am unable to give you an answer just because of how broad that question actually is.” Committee Chair Alex Rizo (R-112, Miami-Dade) agreed with Andrade, Nixon’s Yes or No question “was extremely open-ended, with many different scenarios.” For the record, the answer is clearly “YES.” Through real estate dealings, Florida’s for-profit charter corporations have been able to generate vast wealth.

Twelve speakers commented on the amendment (including The Florida PTA, Florida Association of District School Superintendents, Miami Dade Public Schools and several others, including me, in opposition). Only three voiced support: Chris Moya, the lobbyist for CSUSA, Nathan Hoffman, the lobbyist for Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future and Ryan Kennedy, lobbyist for the Florida’s Citizens Alliance.

I reminded the committee of the various ways public school buildings and properties are used in my district. These are my prepared remarks (you can watch me at 50:20).

“This amendment is overly prescriptive, dictating what a local community must do with excess public property. These decisions should be made in the local community and not etched in state statute.

If school districts have excess property, is the best use of that public property automatically a charter school? While affordable housing is a challenge across Florida, there are some communities that have more pressing needs.

For example, here in Tallahassee there are areas sorely lacking preschools and child care centers. When an elementary school was under capacity, it was converted to an early childhood center… something the community desperately needed.

In my community in Monroe, underutilized schools and district owned properties have been converted to the Key West City Hall, community parks, the Islamorada Library and our county health department. The monument to the victims of the 1935 hurricane is on school district property. Currently, our fire department has approached us with the hope we can transfer a small plot of land to them for a necessary storage facility. We are also in the process of building 150 units of affordable housing on school district property in Key West. That construction will require the relocation of our administration building, which we hope to move to a historic school building in desperate need of renovation. These are things that our community wants and needs. We shouldn’t have to wait 6 months, in case a charter school wants to utilize the property, before we can move forward to address our community’s needs.

As stewards of the school district’s property, local school boards, not this legislature, should be making these decisions.” Sue Woltanski, 1/18/24

The only person speaking in support of the amendment was Chris Moya, the lobbyist for Charter Schools USA. (you can watch his testimony at 52:50). He said HB109 was “about practical barriers to developing choice.” He, also, almost immediately noted that my county, Monroe County, has grown by 4.19% in the last year so, he said, “all of those points being made, Monroe County is not part of it.” [Right, but in 2002 we did have 2 back to back school years with declining enrollment, and the same could happen in the future…] Moya explained that though the Legislature has embraced choice, there are counties where there is no land left. He says, collectively, over the years districts have raised about $4 billion in referendum money and they have begun “land banking,” claiming “any piece of property where a charter could have gone, was bought over the last decade” leaving  Broward County, who has seen declining enrollment, with “practically no places left to develop”. In Moya’s mind, the only way to further develop school choice in Broward is to have the state come down and hand public assets over to charter schools.

[You can learn more about how corporate charter chains, like CSUSA, profit through publicly funded Real Estate Scams and Self-Dealing in “Stories About How Charters Profit and Suspect Statistics from a Charter School Lobbyist,” which I wrote after the last time I hear Mr. Moya testify.]

With the passage of the amendment, the bill was temporarily postponed in order to change the bill’s title, which no longer focused solely on conversion charter schools. The conversation resumed in committee on 1/25/24.

During the public comment period on 1/25/24, there were 23 individuals/organizations opposing HB109 and only 3 groups in support (the lobbyist for the Florida Citizen’s Alliance spoke and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future and the Koch funded Americans for Property waived in support). Not one member of a local municipality, no city council members or county commissioner, spoke in favor of the ability to convert public schools in their community.

Despite overwhelming opposition, the bill passed along party lines.

The good news is that the Senate companion (SB246, sponsored by Sen. Harrell, R-31) doesn’t seem to be moving at this time. Also, SB246 currently focuses only on Conversion Charters and does not contain the 1% Enrollment Decline Amendment.

This session, in an attempt to “level the playing field” between public schools and charters/vouchers, the Florida Senate has established the deregulation of public schools as their education priority. Creating more ways to give public schools away to charter chains, will NOT “level any playing field.” Florida’s Senate should reject the proposed policies in HB109 and the continued state-sponsored pilfering of our public schools

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