Fla. ethics panel grapples with public-ness of charter schools

Attorney Robin Gibson makes his case before the Florida Ethics Commission during a hearing last week.

Charter schools are public agencies and should be treated that way. That’s the upshot of recent deliberations from the Florida Ethics Commission.

The panel spent months grappling with the case of Robin Gibson, a Lake Wales City Commissioner who also does legal work for the city’s one-of-a-kind charter school system.

The city wants to donate a piece of land to one of the charters. State ethics laws would bar Gibson from voting on the land donation as a city commissioner if it would result in a “special private gain” for his legal client — the charter schools. However, an exception in the law would allow him to vote if the charter schools are a public agency.

Gibson contended the charter schools are a public agency. Among other things, he cites this line near the beginning of Florida’s charter school statute:

All charter schools in Florida are public schools and shall be part of the state’s program of public education.

But Ethics Commission staff saw things differently. They drew up an opinion holding the schools should be viewed as a private entity. Staff attorney Grayden Schafer laid out several arguments during a hearing earlier this fall. Among them: The “corporate nature of charter schools” means they’re not public in the same way a school board or a city government is.

What’s more, Schafer said, charters are exempt from the bulk of state education regulations.

There are deregulation efforts in the works for other public schools. For example, the Legislature recently passed a law that exempts nearly a fifth of the state’s district-run public schools from many state rules.

Still, the Legislature often treats charter schools differently from other public schools. State law exempts them from much of the state’s ethics code for public officials.

After hearing Gibson state his case at its October hearing, a shorthanded commission deadlocked 3-3.

When the commission revisited the issue earlier this month, Matthew Carson cast the deciding vote in Gibson’s favor.

“Charter schools in Florida are public schools in operation, in function and by statute,” Carson said. “It seems to me that what would be good for any other public agency under this statute would also be good for a charter school.”

Carson backed a motion to accept two parts of the commission’s opinion on Gibson, but to excise the portion that concluded charter schools are not public agencies.

Nobody on the commission doubted Gibson’s integrity.  He does legal work for the charter schools because he wants to improve public education in a small Polk County town. He told the commission he doesn’t make money on his efforts, and only charges enough to cover his expenses. And the land exchange would be a donation — not a transaction in which money would change hands.

“There is not a bit of private interest involved in this endeavor,” he said. The Lake Wales community created the charter system because it wanted to govern its own schools, rather than rely on district officials in Bartow.

“To maintain that I, or anyone associated with my principal, were in it for private gain, cheapens the whole effort,” Gibson said.

Commissioner Daniel Brady, however, noted that his town, Miami Shores, supports a charter high school. It views that school as a private agency, independent from the city, he said.

But Gibson said the Lake Wales schools are public. They are sponsored by the school district, and if the charter system ever shuts down, its property would remain in public hands.

“Every pencil sharpener, every desk, every building — they’re all public,” he said.

This case was first covered in a series of Politico Florida emails that are behind a paywall. It was also flagged by the Gradebook.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at) sufs.org.