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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Less than a mile from the state Capitol, a former steakhouse shows little evidence that it was once part of a movement to change Florida's schools.
It was on this location nearly two decades ago that the leader of a prominent Tallahassee church put together one of the state's first charter schools. The space where customers grazed the salad bar became student desks. The parking lot became home to two portables used for classrooms.
The only trace of C.K. Steele/LeRoy Collins Community Charter Middle School is a sign in the parking lot. It closed in 2014.
But over the course of the preceding decade, the school received nearly $540,000 to help with capital purchases under a program enacted by the Republican-controlled Legislature and supported by the last three governors. Bethel Missionary Baptist Church owned the building when the school opened and it still does.
So what did get taxpayers get back? Not much. Some televisions, computers and other surplus supplies deemed unusable by the Leon County school district.
The story is repeated across the state: Charter schools, which are public schools run by private groups, have received more than $760 million from state taxpayers since 2000 according to an Associated Press analysis of state Department of Education records. Schools can use the money for construction costs, rent payments, buses and even property insurance.
Yet charter schools in 30 districts have wound up closing after receiving as much as $70 million combined in such funding, the AP's analysis showed.
Taxpayers usually can't recover the capital money invested in those schools because most of it has been spent on rent or leasing costs. The Department of Education reported it has taken back just $133,000 in the last three years from schools that closed.
"Even if it's the Taj Mahal, if you lease it and it closes there's no way for the district to recoup that," said Jenna Hodgens, who is in charge of dealing with charter schools for Hillsborough County schools.
Democratic lawmakers have criticized the expenditures, especially since Florida legislators have curtailed construction money for traditional public schools in recent years.
The AP's analysis was derived from department data that lists charter schools that received money set aside in the annual state budget. That data was compared with schools that the state listed as closed. The state listed as closed some schools that had merged with others; the AP did not count money that went to those schools in tallying the total spent on now-defunct schools.
The list of schools that got money includes Miami's Liberty City Charter, set up with great fanfare by Jeb Bush shortly before he ran for governor in 1998. Liberty City closed after eight years because of severe financial problems, but not before receiving $1.1 million in state capital funds.
Bush, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, has remained a champion of charter school schools and vouchers. His campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Charter schools, which proponents see as a way for some families to move their children into schools better suited to their needs, have grown in popularity since they were authorized in the '90s. There are currently more than 650 charter schools statewide, teaching more than 250,000 students. These schools receive money from school districts to pay for day-to-day expenses like salaries.
But the growth of charter schools has trigged a tug-of-war in the Legislature over how much money should also be given them to pay for capital needs such as classrooms and transportation. The capital money directed to charter schools reached a high of $90 million two years ago but dropped to just under $48 million for the current budget year.
Charter school backers say they need state help because, unlike school districts, they can't rely on local property taxes to help pay capital expenses. Some legislators have tried to change that in recent years but the proposals have been defeated.
"Banks don't usually lend to charter schools," said Lynn Norman-Teck, executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance. "You can't walk into Bank of America and say, 'I have a good idea and I may have 100 kids show up.'
"This capital outlay is the lifeline for some of these charter schools, especially the small independent ones."
Charter schools receive capital dollars based on a formula tied to student enrollment and grade level. Charter schools must be open three years to be eligible, although schools tied to established charter schools can get money sooner.
Charter school advocates contend that the amount, however, given to each school is not large enough to buy buildings or land, especially in urban areas with expensive real estate.
Rep. Manny Diaz, a Miami Republican who is pushing a charter school-friendly bill for the upcoming session, says that if that "dollars are connected to the child," then it is worthwhile. The solution to prevent taxpayers from losing money, he contends, is to tighten up requirements for charter school operators at the start.
Rev. R.B. Holmes, the Tallahassee minister behind the charter school in the state capital, said his school closed so his church could focus on its existing private school. He said his church wound up subsidizing the charter school well beyond the $540,000 taxpayers put into it. A church-run veterans center uses the school's former building.
"If the state gave money to build a building from the ground up, then I think the state should own that building," Holmes said. "But we never got enough money to build a doghouse."
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