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Charter schools report draws criticism

By Staff | Feb 3, 2017

Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced earlier this week that he plans to increase spending on education in his next budget, which flies in the face of the budget model Cape Coral City Manager John Szerlag had staff draw up for the city’s Charter School System.

The city’s budget model assumes a flat baseline of revenue in projecting operating costs for the next several years and concludes the system will run out of money by 2021.

That differs from the model used by the School District of Lee County.

“We assume increases in revenue from the state though we don’t know how much we will get until the state tells us,” said Lee County School District Director of Business Services Kelly Letcher. “We never use a flat baseline. I can’t speak for other districts, but I would assume they do not use a flatline either.”

City Councilmember Jessica Cosden believes the city’s review of the charter school finances is unfair for that reason. She serves as the chair of the Charter School Governing Board.

“Revenue has been mostly up every year,” Cosden said. “Gov. Scott just announced he wants to increase spending for schools next year. That’s where we get our money. There is no reason to think our revenue will go down. Even if it did we would adjust the budget, make cutbacks and spend less. It’s ridiculous.”

At the end of council’s discussion of the charter school finances last Monday, at least three members spoke about sitting down with the governing board and superintendent to exchange thoughts and ideas to reach a solution.

“I hope to set up a joint meeting between council and the governing board before the Feb. 27 council meeting,” said Cosden. “I want to resolve this whole mess as soon as possible.”

Cosden also contends the city is rushing to judgement because staff wants to resolve the issue before City Auditor Margaret Krym retires at the end of the month.

“The timing of this action is unfortunate,” Cosden said on Monday. “I would prefer to wait for the new auditor before going forward.”

Cosden also believes financial figures reached by charter school staff were discounted by the city in drawing up its budget model.

“Some numbers were used and some were not,” said Cosden. “I think the numbers are being used to fit an agenda by the city manager.”

Charter School Superintendent Nelson Stephenson is being criticized by some on council for his leadership, or lack thereof. It became the focus of a heated exchange between Stephenson and Mayor Marni Sawicki at a council meeting in December. Stephenson ended the discussion by walking away from the podium.

Acknowledging he has concerns about how the financial review developed Stephenson said he will not comment further until the joint meeting with city council.

“I will continue to take the high road on this as I did with council at the December meeting,” Stephenson said. “I was not there at the council meeting (Monday) and that tells you how I feel. I do not want to enflame the situation any more than it is.”

Councilmember Rana Erbrick is another who thinks the review is shortsighted.

“I don’t think the city is taking the full picture into account on the numbers,” Erbrick said. “It does not tell the whole story. It affects 3,500 students, their parents and the teachers and staff. We’re getting a one-sided picture. There is information out there that we don’t have.”

Cosden mentioned that the charter school governing board is working on a rolling three-year budget for next year similar to what Szerlag has done with the city’s operating budget.

The School District budgets annually.

“We do a budget year by year, not a three-year budget” said Letcher. “I’m starting to build next year’s budget, but I won’t plug in revenue numbers until we hear from the governor. We do use a five-year capital plan in our budget for building new schools and provide funds for that.”

The city’s charter school budget makes no allowance for capital expansion.

“I am concerned with the haste and urgency associated with it about getting it done this minute,” added Erbrick. “I’m uncomfortable going further until the governing board weighs in. I can grab the baseline assumptions, but you need to make adjustments. Cosden is heavily involved as board chair and we need to hear the other side.”

Like Cosden, Erbrick prefers to resolve the matter amicably.

“Now that the process has started we should see it through,” Erbrick said. “Things can always be better. We owe it to all sides to see it through to the end. I want to believe everyone has the right intentions.”