Tuesday, July 17, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: Pinellas should join lawsuit challenging new state law

The Florida Legislature has been on a cynical, constitutionally dubious quest to render local school boards powerless. The most direct assault is a new state law that strips school boards of much of their authority when it comes to the creation and funding of charter schools. It's time for the Pinellas County School District to join other districts in a lawsuit aimed at putting a stop to the micromanaging from Tallahassee.

Seven school boards around the state already have agreed to join in a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of HB 7069, which Gov. Rick Scott foolishly signed into a law. Orange County is expected to officially sign on as the eighth district in the next few days. The Pinellas County School Board originally was scheduled to make a decision about joining the lawsuit in August but now appears poised to wait for at least another month.

Ostensibly, the School Board is giving superintendent Mike Grego time to meet with local legislators to see if any common ground can be reached on reforms next year. It's an admirable thought but wishful thinking. With House Speaker Richard Corcoran still running the show in Tallahassee in 2018, traditional public schools will remain under attack.

The lawsuit is expected to be filed in late September, and Pinellas would be wise to get on board before then. There is nothing that would stop the county from joining the lawsuit once it is already under way, but that doesn't send a forceful enough message. Pinellas needs to show some leadership. It needs to show some courage. Other districts have been wary because of the possible pushback from legislative leaders, but that type of bullying is all the more reason for Pinellas to step forward.

Large parts of the new law have yet to be enacted, and Pinellas is already feeling the effect. Because the district has not carried excessive debt, it will be required to hand over $25 million for charter school capital construction costs over the next five years. Pinellas is losing more money than any other large district in the state. In essence, Pinellas is being penalized under the HB 7069 funding formula because it managed its money responsibly and did not run up a lot of debt like some other counties.

If Pinellas joins, and Polk County follows through on its flirtations, then seven of the nine largest districts in Florida will have come together as allies. With all of them aboard, they would represent roughly half of the public school students in the state. That kind of solidarity would send Tallahassee, and the courts, a powerful message about the need for more checks and balances in the education system.

This is a critical moment, not just for students but for the independence of school boards in the state. Instead of trusting the officials who were specifically elected to run local school districts, the governor and state lawmakers have hijacked education for their ideological and self-serving needs. If it takes a lawsuit to get the Legislature out of classrooms, bring on the lawyers.

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