When Hurricane Irma hit earlier this month, Floridians flocked to shelters set up in auditoriums, government buildings, churches, schools and other well-built structures. Buildings not strong enough to withstand a tough storm were not used — including most charter schools in the state.
In Florida, charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, don’t have to abide by some of the same rules as traditional public schools. They don’t, for example, have to comply with the same construction standards.
According to this story in the Tampa Bay Times, only a handful of charter schools opened as shelters during Irma.
Charters are not given much in-state funds for capital expenses and get none for that purpose from local districts. The state legislature, however, recently passed a law that requires districts to share local funding for capital purposes with charters, though that law is being challenged by a number of districts.
And the state legislature is bullish on charter schools, pushing their expansion, meaning that there will be more school buildings paid for with public money in Florida that probably won’t be up to hurricane shelter standards.
What’s more, a law recently passed in Florida may also allow traditional public schools to be constructed with less stringent building codes than in the past, which means that they, too, may not be able to serve as hurricane shelters.
Emergency Management, a media platform dedicated to fostering collaboration across the emergency management community, wrote about the safety of hurricane shelters in Florida, saying:
Gov. Scott this year signed into law a bill easing Florida’s stringent, post-Hurricane Andrew building codes to save construction costs, and the Republican-controlled legislature has begun relaxing the tough building codes for schools that double as emergency shelters.
State leaders are shifting more public money into privately run charter schools that do not have to comply with hurricane-safe shelter standards even as Florida’s projected deficit in emergency shelter spots for Florida’s medically needy populations has more than doubled, to more than 23,000, since Scott became governor in 2011.
“As Florida’s hurricane vulnerable population continues to grow, it is vitally important that construction of hurricane evacuation shelters and retrofitting of existing buildings be considered a priority,” said a 2016 Florida Division of Emergency Management report of Florida’s emergency shelter supply.