Voters approved a tax increase for schools. One is fighting for a share

A helping hand could actually hurt some of Manatee County’s most disadvantaged students.

Voters approved a one-mill increase on property taxes in March, allowing the school district to increase its salaries, lengthen its school day and improve its classes. The referendum helped Manatee compete with surrounding communities, but it also put the district in competition with two of its own programs.

Just for Girls, an alternative education program, has an elementary school in Bradenton and a middle school in Palmetto. The district contracts with both schools to support girls who need a different approach or a new environment to learn, but neither program was included in the tax referendum.

The program’s chief executive officer, Becky Canesse, said she was forced to either match district salaries or lose her staff to Manatee’s traditional schools.

In a leap of faith, Canesse matched the district’s pay scale and its extended day, hoping Manatee would eventually recognize the need for extra funding. For now, the school is operating at a deficit.

She said the programs could eventually close, a lose-lose situation for the district and its students. The drop-out rate would likely rise, and the district would be further from its goal of earning an “A” grade from the state.

“It would be absolutely counter to what the voters intended,” she said.

The problem

Manatee County Girls Club opened in Bradenton on Jan. 6, 1969, and its nonprofit foundation was formed about two decades later.

The organization offers character development and out-of-school programs, focusing on everything from homework help to the prevention of teen pregnancy or substance abuse.

About 25 years ago, at the request of Manatee’s school district, Just for Girls opened its middle school. The organization opened a charter school for elementary students in 2012, but it transitioned to the current elementary program after receiving three F’s under the charter standards.

In 2017, students at the middle school averaged 1.7 years of reading growth in nine months, according to Just for Girls’ annual report.

Its two campuses are part of the district’s 10 “contract sites,” and none are currently set to benefit from the referendum.

The list includes Pace Center for Girls, a program that advertises academic and social services to young women in middle and high school. It includes Easterseals, which offers a high school program to students with physical or developmental challenges, among other services.

Each program falls into a gray area. Just for Girls is a private nonprofit but doesn’t fit the definition of a private school, nor does it fall under the umbrella of a charter or a traditional school.

Much like other schools, the contract sites receive state money for each student. They also collect outside funding, but Canesse said Just for Girls isn’t supported by large agencies or sizable donations.

She made her first request on April 10, during annual negotiations with the district.

“To honor the spirit of the referendum that was just passed, and to be fair to these Manatee County students and their teachers, the 1 Mil funding allocation needs to be included,” she wrote in an email to district staff.

Cynthia Saunders, then the deputy superintendent of instructional services, had an answer on Aug. 16. In her email, Saunders said contract sites weren’t specifically named in the referendum

She also pointed to an agreement with the teachers’ union, which secured 51 percent of the money for instructional staff and 5 percent for paraprofessionals.

Another 14.5 percent is set aside for charter schools, along with 8 percent for hourly, non-bargaining employees. A third group of employees receives 6 percent, and the final 15.5 percent goes toward science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs.

Canesse has fought to include her program under one of the referendum groups, to no avail.

“I certainly understand your position on the matter and commend you for making your case,” Saunders said in her August email.

The debate

Nearly everyone wants to help Just for Girls, but nobody seems to have a solution.

Saunders’ email said the board could decide whether to include contract schools in the referendum pool, and Canesse said she received similar news from former Superintendent Diana Greene.

On Sept. 11, Canesse pleaded with the school board to include her programs in the referendum. She estimated it would cost $100,000 to cover the raises and another $20,000 to pay for the longer school day.

“I’m not asking you for an advantage,” she said. “I’m asking you for a level playing field with the other students.”

Board member Charlie Kennedy suggested Just for Girls be paid from the charter schools’ portion of referendum money, especially since estimated revenue from the increased property taxes jumped from $33 million to $37 million.

Kennedy felt the request amounted to a “minuscule piece” of the charters’ share.

But charters, like the other groups, are entitled to a percentage of the total revenue, and it’s unlikely they would relinquish that money.

“For me it simply comes down to a question of basic fairness,” he said. “These are Manatee County students who would benefit from these funds.”

The charters could respond with a lawsuit, according to board member Dave Miner.

He said the school could transition to a charter and receive a share of the money. Just for Girls could also wait until the referendum expires in 2022, allowing the board to include contract sites in the renewal vote.

Canesse said becoming a charter would only hurt the schools, where progress is more important than proficiency. Just for Girls, which is not graded by the Florida Department of Education, currently allows for different measures of achievement.

And waiting for a solution in 2022 could be detrimental, she said.

John Colon, a departing board member, said the money should temporarily come from unused salaries. In response, Superintendent Saunders said the district had 60 teacher vacancies, but the salaries were already calculated into Manatee’s budget.

Colon raised another legal argument, warning of a potential discrimination lawsuit if Just for Girls was harmed.

“If the board in its wisdom or lack thereof didn’t include them in the referendum, that’s our fault and we need to make it right,” he said. “You can’t discriminate against those students, and I feel that’s what we’re doing.”

The solution?

Without a consensus, the school board sent Just for Girls’ request to the Citizens’ Financial Advisory Committee.

The group of community volunteers, which met on Nov. 5, was formed to ensure the proper use of referendum money.

Vice Chairman John Horne felt the school was responsible for its own predicament.

“You need to go to the 10 schools and tell them to hire someone that negotiates properly,” he said.

Saunders, now the superintendent, said Just for Girls could increase its class sizes and receive more state funding.

But small class sizes, which currently include about 80 elementary students and 40 middle school students, are key to a successful program, Canesse said.

Nearly two hours passed before the committee agreed on a message for the school board.

“We understand the plight of these contract schools and that they should have been included in the millage referendum to begin with, and we ask the board to help these schools,” said Garin Hoover, whose motion was unanimously approved.

The committee agreed that all 10 programs should be considered. Saunders estimated it would cost nearly $85,000 to help Just for Girls, or approximately $228,000 to support every contract site.

Committee member Richard Conard asked the superintendent how $228,000 would affect the district’s current budget.

“If you’re asking me today, I could say ‘a lot,’ because I can’t tell you what our balance is,” she said, citing problems with the district’s new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system.

However, she said, the district could budget for contract changes in the next school year. The money would come from Manatee’s general fund, not its referendum money.

The issue was never discussed at Tuesday’s school board meeting, apart from public comments by Canesse. Her request will likely resurface after the board seats its newest member, James Golden, on Nov. 20.

“It’s a good investment,” she said. “It if was a stock it would be a great buy.”