State seeks to fast-track school reopening case

by | Aug 31, 2020

Locked in a legal slugfest with teachers unions over a state mandate that schools reopen this month amid the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran are seeking to speed up the case by skipping over an appellate court and going directly to the Florida Supreme Court.

The state is appealing decisions by Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson, who twice this week sided with the Florida Education Association and the Orange County teachers union in lawsuits challenging Corcoran’s July 6 emergency order requiring schools to reopen brick-and-mortar classrooms in August or risk losing state funding.

The unions argue that Corcoran’s order violates the Florida Constitution’s guarantee of “safe” and “secure” public schools.

In a temporary injunction issued Monday, Dodson ruled that decisions about whether schools should resume in-person classes amid the coronavirus pandemic should be left to local education officials, who should be allowed to open schools when they deem it is safe without being financially penalized.

A state appeal initiated an automatic stay of the judge’s order, but Dodson on Thursday refused to keep his ruling on hold while the appeal proceeds.

Hours after Dodson’s Thursday decision, lawyers for DeSantis and Corcoran asked the 1st District Court of Appeal to reinstate the stay on the temporary injunction.

Allowing Dodson’s order to remain in effect “would threaten to interfere with the ongoing reopening of schools by local districts and disrupt plans that families have made with respect to their children’s education,” the state’s lawyers argued.

But in a response filed Friday, the Florida Education Association’s lawyers argued that Corcoran’s mandate forces teachers to “needlessly expose themselves to a deadly and contagious virus based solely on a blanket and arbitrary decision that schools must reopen for in-person instruction or lose their funding.”

Amid the continued legal battling about a stay, lawyers for the state also are seeking to bypass the Tallahassee-based appellate court and have the Florida Supreme Court immediately consider the case, a move the plaintiffs support.

The time-sensitive legal dispute is an issue of “great public importance” affecting Floridians statewide and meets a legal “pass-through” standard, the state’s lawyers argued in a motion filed Thursday at the appellate court.

“This appeal is of great public importance because the circuit court’s order on appeal impairs the authority of the governor to manage state affairs during an emergency, and it impairs the ability of the state Board of Education to supervise the statewide system of public education,” they wrote.

Dodson’s temporary-injunction order “impacts Florida’s public school students on a statewide basis and improperly intrudes into a public-policy decision of the executive branch made in the context of a global public-health emergency,” the state’s lawyers argued.

The statewide teachers union, in a response filed Friday, agreed that the dispute over Dodson’s temporary injunction has a “statewide effect on the public school system, teachers and parents, and a prompt, authoritative resolution by the Supreme Court is needed.”

But the plaintiffs disagreed that the state’s request “accurately states the facts of the case” or accurately represents Dodson’s Monday order.

The union could have a difficult time winning at the appellate court or the Supreme Court, both of which are stocked with judges appointed by Republican governors. The Supreme Court has a conservative-leaning majority of justices, including two who were appointed by DeSantis.

DeSantis and Corcoran have dug in on the reopening of schools, insisting that families need to have choices about whether children should resume face-to-face instruction or continue with distance learning, which began in March when schools were shuttered statewide as the coronavirus began to spread throughout Florida.

Corcoran’s order required school districts to reopen brick-and-mortar schools five days a week in August, unless state and local health officials say otherwise. But testimony during a hearing last week showed that the Florida Department of Health and county health administrators, who work for the state agency, have refused to weigh in on whether it’s safe to reopen classrooms.

“Make no mistake — plaintiffs want schools to reopen in a brick and mortar environment; but local school boards must have the authority to make those decisions on a local level,” the Florida Education Association’s lawyers wrote, adding that “forcing schools to reopen on an in-person basis based purely on economic rather than safety concerns places all Floridians at risk.”

The legal wrangling has come as schools in many parts of the state have reopened this month. Nearly all of the 67 school districts, which risk losing money if they don’t comply with Corcoran’s mandate, have agreed to resume in-person instruction by Monday. Districts are also offering distance learning.

About 711,000 students are already at their desks and 1.6 million of the state’s 2.8 million children have been signed up for face-to-face classes, according to state education officials.

Corcoran’s order “provides additional flexibility and financial stability for school districts grappling with the potential decline of in-person student enrollment as a result of the pandemic,” lawyers for the state wrote in Thursday’s motion asking the Tallahassee-based appeals court to reinstate the stay on Dodson’s Monday ruling.

The state’s lawyers pointed out that Florida law bases district funding on surveys of the number of children in schools. Schools receive reduced funding for virtual education and are paid only for online classes that are completed.

Corcoran’s emergency order waived the funding requirements for school districts that submitted reopening plans approved by state education officials.

Corcoran, a former House speaker who was hand-picked by DeSantis to serve as education commissioner before being appointed by the State Board of Education, had the authority to waive the funding laws because DeSantis “is authorized to delegate his emergency powers at his discretion, as he has done so here to the commissioner of education,” the state’s lawyers argued.

Corcoran’s mandate “reflects a policy decision” that “was made over the course of several months, after involving numerous education stakeholders, and should not be cast aside during this pending appeal,” they argued.

But the union’s lawyers called the state’s argument a “misdirection” attempting to “distract this court from the true issue — do school boards have the authority to make local decisions as to what is best for their teachers and students based on local health statistics and concerns or not?”


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