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Could Florida teachers rallying at the Capitol be punished for a strike?

Teachers requested the time off for the rally in advance, but there was outrage over the weekend after Polk County teachers received an email that appeared to be threatening their jobs.
More than 2,000 teachers and educators rallied at the Florida Capitol in Jan. 2016 in protest of statewide education policies. (Kristen M. Clark  | Times/Herald)
More than 2,000 teachers and educators rallied at the Florida Capitol in Jan. 2016 in protest of statewide education policies. (Kristen M. Clark | Times/Herald)
Published Jan. 12, 2020
Updated Jan. 13, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — As Florida lawmakers prepare Monday for the looming start of the 2020 legislative session, thousands of teachers are expected to descend upon the Capitol with a call for improved support of public education.

The “Take on Tallahassee” rally, sponsored by the Florida Education Association, has generated plenty of enthusiasm among educators who say they’ve felt ignored and dismissed for too long. Teachers planned to make the trek to the capital in buses, starting Sunday night or early Monday morning.

It also has raised a question among some observers: Shouldn’t those teachers be at work that day?

Florida law is crystal clear that organized work stoppages by public employees, such as teachers, for the purpose of trying to change their work conditions are not allowed. In other words: strikes.

Would busloads of classroom teachers headed to a protest, at the behest of the state’s largest employee union, meet that standard?

Local and state association officials made clear that while they want to send a message, they also are making sure their primary mission of educating kids is not compromised.

Sharon Nesvig, spokeswoman for the Florida Education Association, said that the state teachers’ union’s lawyers determined that because the participating teachers have requested the time off, allowing time for districts to find substitutes, their rally is not a strike. Furthermore, it’s protected by the Florida Constitution’s guarantee of the right to peacefully assemble.

But over the weekend, outrage emerged over what appeared to be a threat by the Florida Department of Education to fire the hundreds of teachers from Polk County who planned to attend the rally.

After more than 1,600 teachers from Polk told the district they’d be out Monday — a number higher than even big, urban districts — teachers received an email from the department’s general counsel, Matthew Mears, that said “a concerted failure to report for duty constitutes an illegal strike under Florida law,” and that “a public employee violating the strike provision may be terminated.”

Billy Townsend, a Polk County School Board member, wrote on his blog that the email was an attempt by the department to “openly threaten with utter destruction the livelihoods and pensions of 1,600 ... vastly underpaid and overstressed people.”

Even U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a leading Democratic candidate for president, amplified the issue on her Twitter, writing Sunday that “Florida teachers are rallying for fair pay and better funding for schools, and they won’t be intimidated or undermined. I stand with the teachers.”

By Sunday afternoon, both the department and Polk’s superintendent had made public statements trying to calm the storm. They both said that the email was sent in response to the district’s concerns, after their original estimate of about 600 teacher absences more than doubled at the last minute. They sought an opinion from the department about how to handle that, which resulted in the email from Mears, that was forwarded by the district to the teachers.

Taryn Fenske, spokeswoman for the department, said Sunday that the information was strictly an overview of law and in no way was a recommendation of any specific action. Districts employ teachers, Fenske added, and the department has no authority to fire them. The department did not send a similar letter to any other district.

“We are excited to have teachers come up to discuss” the issues important to them, Fenske added.

In Tampa Bay, the local districts’ preparations have run more smoothly. Pinellas County, the local union tried to minimize the impact of the rally by only seeking two teachers from each school.

“I would love to be able to take every educator,” Gandolfo said. “We’re in a state where you can’t strike. This is not a strike. We want to be absolutely clear.”

He noted that in other states with similar rules, district superintendents canceled school days to allow teachers to express their views to lawmakers. That’s not happening in Florida, though.

In Hillsborough County, the district administration has chosen to balance the teachers’ initiative with the need to continue classes, which resumed after winter break just last week.

“We are working collaboratively with our teachers union to assure just a few teachers from each school will take the day off and represent teachers across our district,” district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said via email. “We want to support our teachers’ rights to meet with lawmakers over these important issues and use their time off as they choose while ensuring our students have their teachers in the classroom as much as possible.”

Pasco County’s employee union took a different approach.

“We are not in the position to start asking people to call out and go up to Tallahassee, even though we believe in the message,” said United School Employees of Pasco chief operating officer Jim Ciadella.

Instead, the union is sending its staff members, along with retired educators, to the rally. If individual teachers are taking the day off to participate, Ciadella said, “We’re not really sure.”

The Pasco district reported having received only a tiny number of leave requests.