This weekend, when the Republican Party of Florida gathers in Orlando for its summer quarterly meeting, two of Manatee County’s most politically connected school board members will be among the legislators and supporters.
Recently appointed board member Scott Hopes and vice chairman John Colon will attend the summer gathering. While Manatee’s board and others across the state are considering suing the lawmakers over HB7069 — a controversial Republican-backed education reform bill — Hopes said he is hoping to use diplomacy rather than a lawsuit to change the law.
“What I’m hearing from leadership is that there is a willingness and intent to address any unintended consequences of the bill during this upcoming session,” Hopes said Friday.
Colon did not return a call Friday seeking comment.
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Both men are appointees of Gov. Rick Scott. Colon was appointed in 2014 and won a second term when he ran unopposed last year, and Hopes was appointed in July to replace Karen Carpenter, who moved to Boston.
HB7069 requires districts to share tax revenue earmarked for capital expenses in the district with charter schools. On Tuesday, Manatee Superintendent Diana Greene said she anticipated the law would require the district to hand over $7.13 million in capital funds to charter schools, an increase of about $4.3 million from 2016-17.
What I'm hearing from leadership is that there is a willingness and intent to address any unintended consequences of the bill during this upcoming session.
- School Board of Manatee County board member Scott Hopes
Public school advocates have said not only does this take revenue away from public schools, but it also places minimal oversight on how charter schools use the money. Hopes said charters should be subject to the same requirements elected boards are held to when it comes to financial accountability.
“I want to look at the bill and ensure the board of the School District of Manatee County has the authority to ensure, through whatever mechanism, that when those dollars go to a charter provider that those dollars are being used the way they were intended,” Hopes said.
As a governor’s appointee to the State Executive Committee of the Republican Party of Florida and chairman of the Appointee’s Caucus of the Republican Party of Florida, Hopes represents the interests of Scott, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron to the state party.
He wants to use those connections to improve the law, but board chairman Charlie Kennedy isn’t holding his breath.
“We’ll see how influential they (Colon and Hopes) are soon enough,” Kennedy said. “If they think that they can go talk some sense into our legislative delegation, I’d rather work with the legislators than against them. But legislators for years have not shown interest in working with local school districts.”
We’ll see how influential they (Colon and Hopes) are soon enough.
chairman Charlie Kennedy
Kennedy said the key provisions local school boards like Manatee’s oppose — the “charter school giveaways” — were the ones state lawmakers like Corcoran held most strongly to.
“The stuff they are going to get sued over is the stuff they want in (the law),” Kennedy said.
Broward County’s school board was the first in the state to say they would be suing, and six other districts have also said they will sue, but none have filed a suit yet. Manatee’s board voted on July 26 to support the districts challenging the suit, but held back on committing any funds. Board members have voiced concern over the cost of joining a lawsuit that they technically do not need to join in order to reap benefit from.
At Tuesday’s board meeting, board attorney Jim Dye said a rough analysis done by Broward showed Manatee’s contribution, if it joined Broward’s suit, would be about $6,000.
“When someone asks me what’s a lawsuit going to cost, the question I answer back with is, ‘How hard is the other guy going to fight it? How deep are his pockets? Are his pockets deeper than yours?’” Dye said.
Hopes said the lawsuit was more flash than substance.
“I think its definitely a PR move,” Hopes said. “It’s being driven by principally the anti-charter movement.”
On Tuesday board member Dave Miner, who has bemoaned his inability to get an audience with Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, until just recently, reminded Hopes and Colon to not violate any of Florida’s Sunshine laws on open meetings when they gather with lawmakers in Orlando.
It's kind of like golf — you are supposed to call the penalty on yourself. -
School Board of Manatee CountyBoard attorney Jim Dye
Dye said Hopes and Colon can talk with lawmakers and each other, but they cannot discuss any school board business around each other, and a lawmaker cannot act as a go-between. That means an elected official couldn’t bring up the law with Colon and talk about Hopes’ thoughts on it, and vice versa. If that happens, Dye said, one would need to leave the conversation.
“It’s kind of like golf — you are supposed to call the penalty on yourself,” Dye said.
Hopes said that wouldn’t be a problem.
“I’ve lived under the Sunshine laws for probably 25 years. I’ve been in enough public positions and Mr. Colon has as well,” Hopes said. “We are very good at one of us walking away from the conversation.”