Disney tax challenges could cost FL schools $100 million

Disney’s distaste for property taxes could stiff Florida public schools out of more than $105 million, officials charged Wednesday.

The new council to oversee the corporation’s operations in the state, appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, has wasted no time in re-evaluating some of their predecessors’ decisions.

At a meeting of the Central Florida Tourism Oversight District, Special Counsel Daniel Langley highlighted how the company are challenging tax appraisals of its Disney World properties in dozens of ongoing lawsuits.

The entertainment giant is challenging the Florida government’s tax assessment of how much it is to pay on many of its properties in a bid to lessen those payments — which ultimately fund public entities like schools.

If the suits are successful the company will reap massive property tax refunds, Langley said, which would have to be paid from government funds.

“Disney’s property assessment lawsuits could cost our Orange County public school system anywhere between $52 million and $105 million,” he told the newly remade board.

The attorney said schools are already limiting their spending to guard against a sudden shortfall if Disney wins in court.

Langley read from an Oct. 2022 letter to Disney from Orange County School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs that pleaded with the company to halt their disputes.

The request “is essentially stating please, back off these challenges,” Langley said. “These lawsuits are already impacting our ability to operate our school system and to build schools.”

He said the entreaty has thus far been ignored.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis remade the board that oversee’s Disney’s special district.
Getty Images

Attorney Daniel Langley
Central Florida Tourism Oversight District Special Counsel Daniel Langley
Fishback Dominick

“These impacts to the public school system have not deterred Disney from attempting to get large tax refunds from the school system, from Orange County, or this district,” Langley said.

Jacobs’ letter said Disney’s rebate demands could result in “termination of teachers and staff members and termination of important programs that educate the children.”

If the company prevails, Langley cautioned that the local tax impact would reverberate for years to come.

Board members said they were stunned to learn that their predecessors — who all had close ties to Disney — did little to address the issue and told district lawyers to simply “monitor” the situation.

“The old board did nothing but sit idle in terms of helping or asserting in the litigation favorable help to Osceola and Orange County and the school districts,” said Chairman Mark Garcia. “I’ve never seen such a thing.”

Walt Disney World in Orlando

The panel unanimously passed a measure to “aggressively defend” against Disney’s suits and hire an independent appraiser to assess their property values.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis replaced the members of the since renamed Reedy Creek Improvement District with his allies amid a war with Disney over their opposition to a bill that banned school discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity for young kids.

The Republican argued that the prior panelists served as a rubber stamp for Disney’s corporate priorities and did not act in the public interest.

Orange County School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs.
Orange County School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs.
AFP via Getty Images

The revamped body reiterated its commitment to ending what DeSantis called Disney’s “self-governance” — and noted several other areas of concern Wednesday.

Langley told the board the entertainment giant enjoyed other questionable privileges — including setting its own utility rates and an exemption from fire code inspections and enforcement.

The outgoing board made an 11th-hour move in which they relinquished much of the board’s power back to Disney in February — but the new members said they will move to void those actions.

Disney did not immediately return a request for comment.