by Mike Vogel
Pembroke Pines’ 15-year-old, 5,700-student, city-operated charter school system has earned a reputation as the premier city-run charter system in the nation, with graduation rates that trounce traditional public schools by double digits and a wait list for the five campuses that tops 14,000.
But, of late, the system is known for something else: Financial difficulty. The system came up $2.1-million short this year. The city considered turning over management to a private charter school company, Charter Schools USA, until teachers, through their union, agreed to a new salary schedule that matched the Broward school district schedule. That meant lower pay for two-thirds of teachers. Some teachers at the high-end of the scale saw pay cuts of $18,000 to $20,000. It came as a financial and emotional shock for teachers who always considered Pines charters financially stable.
The difficulty at a city-run, non-profit system also raises questions about the sustainability of other members of what City Manager Charles Dodge calls the “alternative public education system.” But Pines’ schools differ from many charters. While large, the system doesn’t have the economies of scale that a charter school management company covering eight times as many students enjoys. It provides bus service. Its teachers are in the state pension system rather than a lower cost defined contribution retirement program. Nonetheless, the city argues it runs efficiently. It leverages existing city staff to help run the schools and has no full-time superintendent, human resources director or finance director.
The city blames the state for cuts in education funding that have left the system behind where it was five years ago. It also faults the Broward school district, which doesn’t share the proceeds of a countywide property tax with Pembroke Pines charter schools. Finding maintenance and construction dollars for charters has become an annual legislative issue.
In an argument familiar to parents of parochial, private and charter school students, Dodge points out Pembroke Pines parents pay the taxes. “They should definitely be entitled to have that money follow the child,” he says.
Ahead, the system will “get by” if the Legislature maintains the funding status quo, Dodge says, but it has had to tap reserves to cover operating expenses, an unsustainable practice. “It really depends on the Legislature and its allocation of dollars,” Dodge says.
“We’re still not getting the same amount we got five years ago.”