Cover Story

Schools? A Case of Taxation without Representation

When it comes to schools in downtown, it’s time to have a serious conversation. By Joy Prevor.

In a span of only 8 years, approximately 45,000 Downtown units were built, attracting many families. Currently, over 13,000 children reside in the area and a neighborhood public school is critical to ensure Downtown’s viability as a residential community.

With a tax base of over $20.7 billion, this area produces approximately $140,000,000 in annual school district ad valorem taxes and accounts for 34% of the City of Miami’s school district taxable value. Nonetheless, it is currently estimated that the number of non-choice student seats (schools not requiring a county-wide lottery to gain admission) is only 7,033 — a mere 2% of Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ (MDCPS) entire student body — and the majority of these schools are not physically located within the neighborhood.

In addition to millions collected in impact fees from over 20,000 new residential units, the area’s taxable property value and, as a result, the school district’s tax revenue, has nearly doubled in the last 10 years. However, new student stations were not created to rectify the “impact” of that development and serve these Downtown residents. The remaining 6,033 children not served by the existing student seats are left to try their luck with one of the county-wide lotteries for magnet and charter schools or pay private school admission fees.

Children enjoying DNA’s Shakespeare in Bayfront Park, March 30, 2019. A picture that speaks volumes about the presence of children in Downtown. Photo Aurea Veras.
A closer look. Photo by Aurea Veras.

Antiquated Data

The most recent concurrency data demonstrates that there are no available student stations to accommodate new development and school infrastructure to support the area’s population growth has not kept pace. Meanwhile, in direct violation of state law, the School Board is monetizing its real estate assets in the area, many of which would make ideal locations for a desperately needed neighborhood school.

The School Multiplier Formula used to determine the number of student stations required in specific geographies that MDCPS uses is antiquated, and doesn’t reflect the changed Downtown demographics, severely underestimating the number of student seats that will be needed by MDCPS.

According to the information provided by MDCPS, the Downtown Minor Statistical Area (MSA) multiplier is currently 0.1183. However, according to the DDA 2018 Demographics Report, the total number of children in Downtown Miami (13,005) divided by the number of housing units (63,187) results in an actual multiplier of 0.2058 — almost double the multiplier used by Miami-Dade.

Where are the Concurrency & Impact Fees?

Mandated by state law, the School Concurrency Determination process — the means for estimating the number of children each development generates and collecting Concurrency Fees specifically designated to create “additional classrooms” — is one of the most important aspects of growth management intended to ensure that infrastructure keeps up with new development. Unfortunately, the process has been rendered irrelevant due to a loophole that allows local government to allocate students produced by new developments to any nearby school, even outside their designated school boundary (Section 163.3180 of the Florida Statutes). Consequently, per the MDCPS, no developers have ever been charged Concurrency Fees in Downtown Miami until this past year.

But Educational Facilities Impact Fee Funds (aka School Impact Fees) — separate and apart from Concurrency Fees — have been collected. In fact, as the number of residents in Downtown Miami has grown 100% since 2000 and is projected to reach 100,000 by 2021, the developments in the area have generated very considerable School Impact Fees, which per Section 33K-11 of the Miami-Dade County Code, are “expressly designated and earmarked for the accommodation of capital educational facility impacts reasonably attributable to new residential development”. Yet, instead of building schools in the neighborhood, these funds have been allocated, without designation, to one of three very large MDCPS Impact Fee Benefit Districts (geographically encompassing Aventura to Homestead) and their intended impact in Downtown Miami is null.

Further information provided by MDCPS indicates that:

  1. THERE ARE NO AVAILABLE STUDENT STATIONS: Within the MDCPS concurrency system, every school that Downtown children are zoned to for elementary and middle school ran out of available seats several years ago.
  2. CONCURRENCY FEES HAVE BEEN CIRCUMVENTED: The manipulation of available stations, and the loose definition of a “nearby school”, has allowed developers to avoid paying concurrency fees and, therefore, resulted in a complete lack of infrastructure planning.
  3. CONCURRENCY TRACKING IS INCONSISTENT: Review of the concurrency tracking used by the MDCPS reveals inconsistencies that have resulted in uncollected Concurrency Fees. For example, on 2/6/17, a concurrency application stated that Booker T. had 319 available seats. Yet, despite the fact that the ensuing 17 concurrency applications deducted a total of 285 “seats” from the school’s capacity, the school continued to show capacity for 237 students as of 6/28/18.
  4. IMPACT FEES PRIORITIZED OVER CONCURRENCY FEES: Until now, concurrency fees have not been collected and therefore, the differentiation between these designated fees and the more broadly interpreted School Impact Fees has been theoretical. However, the most recent concurrency application (“Art Plaza, LLC”) required, for the first time, mitigation of $1,007,072 by the developer to create 44 new student stations. Yet, instead of collecting these Concurrency fees, the School Board’s resolution on July 30, 2018, credited the developers’ Impact Fees ($814,085) towards their Concurrency fees. As a result, the developer will avoid paying a large portion of required Concurrency Fees and MDCPS will have the flexibility to use the collected Impact Fees anywhere in the Impact Fee Benefit District (Aventura to Homestead).

The Legality

Monetizing the School Board’s Real Estate when they would make ideal locations for a needed neighborhood school, is it legal?

All stakeholders are in agreement: Downtown needs a neighborhood school. Also, stakeholders know or should know, that there are no solid plans to construct a school because, as presented by MDCPS, there are no available (i) land or (ii) funds. MDCPS, however, owns approximately 9 acres of land in the heart of Downtown Miami and is rapidly monetizing this land through deals with developers, negotiating the building of housing, parking, and administrative buildings. However, none of these deals include a new school. In fact, the only planned school amplification is a relocation and expansion of I-Prep, an existing magnet program that would require Downtown children to compete in a county-wide lottery to secure a student station at this school.

Unequivocally, Florida law governs how school boards can dispose of their property in Section 1013.28 (1), F.S. The law states that a district school board “may dispose of any land or real property to which the board holds title which is, by resolution of the board, determined to be unnecessary for educational purposes as recommended in an educational plant survey.” The law also states that a district school board ”shall take diligent measures to dispose of educational property only in the best interests of the public” (emphasis added). With development projects failing school concurrency and children in Downtown having to move out of the area due to lack of accessible schools, is the real estate that MDCPS is disposing of UNNECESSARY for educational purposes?
Photo courtesy of Joy Prevor.

Joy Prevor chairs the Education Committee, DNA.

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