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Updated: Pembroke Pines operates charter system without subsidy of city tax dollars

February 3, 2017
Lehigh Acres Citizen

The City of Cape Coral's Municipal School Authority was not founded without a blueprint.

Former City Manger Terry Stewart brought the concept here in 2004 from Pembroke Pines where he had worked as an assistant city manger and saw firsthand the success of the first municipal charter school system in the state.

And if success is measured by academic achievement and enrollment numbers, Pembroke Pines still provides a viable template.

A city of some 160,000 on Florida's east coast, the municipality has since expanded the system it founded in 1998 to an eight-school program consisting of four elementary, three middle and one high school serving a total student population of about 6,000.

"We've been an 'A' school (system) since the beginning," said Pembroke Pines City Manager Charles Dodge, who also serves as the system's schools superintendent. "There are 14,000 children on the waiting list."

That does not mean that operating a municipal system larger than some public school districts in Florida's more rural counties is an easy task, he added.

Funding is always a challenge.

Pembroke Pines Charter Schools operate, however, without any subsidy of city tax dollars.

"They are self-sustained," Dodge said.

The system's near $53 million budget is funded by per-student, or Florida Education Finance Program contributions, and other dollars from the state including class size reduction, and capital outlay dollars.

The city of Cape Coral's municipal system receives money from those same state education funds as do public school districts throughout Florida.

Strong fundraising efforts also bring in an estimated $500,000 per year to the Pembroke Pines system.

State dollars can fluctuate so the city uses its last year's budget as the base for the new year with actual revenue numbers not available until after the school budget is passed because the state fiscal year cycle differs from the city's.

"It's an up and down cycle and I'm sure Cape Coral is having difficulty as we are having difficulty," Dodge said.

Still, the system budget covers all costs, including $6,328,598 in lease payments to cover bond financing obtained by the city and all maintenance costs including capital expenditures, an allocation that was $393,742 for the 2016-17 school year.

To best manage funding and financial challenges, Pembroke Pines has mitigated administrative costs.

The city manger serves as the school superintendent with school principals reporting directly to him and city staff providing all administrative functions. As superintendent, Dodge reports to the five-member Pembroke City Commission, which serves as the system's school board. The structure is rounded out with an advisory board of parents which makes recommendations to the school board/city commission.

School and education functions require a special skill set and knowledge base, Dodge acknowledged, however the reporting structure can be likened to management oversight for any other specialized municipal department such as police, or fire.

The key is hiring the proper expertise in good principals, he said, adding the reporting structure saves money.

"We've been able to manage it by consolidating resources," he said. "We save an awful lot of money in that we don't have duplication of services. There are shared uses of personnel."

Dodge was asked in a followup email whether the city of Pembroke Pines receives reimbursement from its charter school system for services provided by city staff and, if it does, whether reimbursement covers the full cost of providing those services.

"The City of Pembroke Pines is reimbursed for such services based on an "Administrative Fee" paid by our Charter Schools," he said via email. "The fee is prorated as each department (City Manager, HR, Payroll, Finance..) provides support services to our Charter School. This administrative fee is calculated for all enterprise funds (Utilities, Road & Bridge, etc) in the same manner in compliance with our accounting policies and it is not specific to only Charter Schools."

According to the school system's FY 2014-15 budget book, a $1.1 million administrative fee was earmarked for city-provided administrative services including those provided by the superintendent (Dodge), City Clerk, Human Resources; Payroll Department; Finance Department and Purchasing/Contract Administrations.

Perhaps the greatest challenge - and the greatest source of frustration to operating a municipal system of which there are now several in the state - is the lack of any shared funding from local option property tax dollars for schools, Dodge said.

Pembroke Pines Charter Schools get no share of the local schools millage imposed by the School District of Broward County, he said, adding that is one thing the city continues to try to change at the state level.

"If 20,000 students enroll in charter schools, Broward County still gets the money for those students," Dodge said.

* * *

Editor's note: This story has been updated to answer questions received as to whether Pembroke Pines subsidizes its charter school system through an "implicit" subsidy by providing staff services without full reimbursement from the school system and whether the system covers all maintenance expenditures, including capital costs. (The answers were "no" and "yes" respectively.)



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