As Hurricane Irma bore down on South Florida, Kevin Youngman and his family sought shelter at Falcon Cove Middle School in Weston. There, he found himself in enemy territory.
“I think it’s weird for us because we all went to the rival middle school, Tequesta Trace,” said Youngman, 25, as he relaxed on an air mattress in the school gym.
“We’re kind of backstabbing our roots a little bit,” he joked, as he and his mother laughed. “But I guess Tequesta is backstabbing us, because they didn’t open up a shelter there — so I guess it’s their fault, not ours.”
Youngman was right about his alma mater: Tequesta Trace didn’t open as one of Broward County’s 21 shelters during Hurricane Irma. That’s because the school wasn’t built to withstand the most dangerous storms. Alternatively, Falcon Cove is what emergency officials call an “Enhanced Hurricane Protection Area,” one of the state’s most fortified shelters.
Most public schools are constructed specifically for the purpose they served during Irma: to house people during emergencies. But that could change over time, as the Republican-led state Legislature has begun relaxing the more stringent building codes that apply to public schools. At the same time, lawmakers have promoted the growth of privately run charter schools, which aren’t required to comply with the same high construction standards.
Local leaders worry: If more schools are built without hurricane protections, there could be fewer places for people like Youngman and his family to go during storms.
Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said Irma will likely change the conversation.
“The entire state is talking about the safety of shelters,” she said during a recent interview in her office in Tallahassee. “I don’t think this is the right time to talk about loosening standards for those facilities.”
When districts build new schools — something that happens a lot in South Florida, where the population has grown steadily and rapidly — they’re required to comply with the State Requirements for Educational Facilities, or SREF, which have existed in some form since 1939. The rules govern everything from which materials may be used for different types of walls, how covered walkways must be lit and how many parking spots there should be at high schools.
There’s also an additional layer of rules designed to transform some schools into fortresses against hurricanes. In those facilities — the Enhanced Hurricane Protection Areas, like Falcon Cove — there are systems in place to preserve power and running water in the event of outages.
Lawmakers tweaked some of the standards last year, and they also ordered a study by the Legislature’s non-partisan research body. The resulting report, released in January, identified four rules that could be eliminated and six that could be modified, per school districts’ suggestions. So it’s likely there could be further changes.
The politicians hope to save money.
“School districts should have the option to be able to build at a standard that's still safe, still very livable, … but just not incur unnecessary costs,” said state Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who sponsored last year’s changes.
But building cheaper schools isn’t lawmakers’ only goal. They also want to address complaints about the disparities between traditional public schools and charter schools.
Charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, enjoy broad flexibility from state education laws and regulations, including the stronger construction codes. That’s why most charters didn’t open their doors to the community during Hurricane Irma. They’re typically not built for it.
Flores said this has been a point of contention among local education leaders.
“One of the things that we hear all the time when people want to compare traditional public schools and charter schools is that there’s not a level playing field,” she said after a legislative committee meeting in Tallahassee last week. “And this is an example of where there isn’t a level playing field.”
So far, lawmakers have responded to criticisms by lowering the bar for traditional public schools rather than raising it for charters. And some public school administrators have welcomed flexibility from laws they see as overly cumbersome.
But they worry lawmakers could go too far and leave the state without enough schools that are strong enough to double as shelters. There is already a deficit of shelter space in some parts of the state.
“It would be counterintuitive to want to build a charter school that could last any less or is less equipped than a public school,” said Jaime Torrens, chief facilities officer for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
Traditional school administrators’ annoyance over the inequity intensified this year with the passage of H.B. 7069, a controversial new law that boosts charters and has attracted threats of legal action from the Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County school districts, among others.
A provision that’s particularly hated by public school leaders is a requirement that they share local property-tax revenue for construction and maintenance with charters. Administrators have argued it’s unfair that they must build to higher, more expensive standards while surrendering precious facilities funding to schools with lower construction costs.
Torrens said charters should have to build to the higher standards, especially now that they’ll receive the local funding.
“It would seem appropriate that, if this legislation is upheld, that the charter schools be required to adhere to SREF as well,” he said.
If that were the case, charters could open their doors to hurricane evacuees, too, he said — “not just our schools.”
WLRN's Wilson Sayre contributed to this report.