Florida school opening lawsuit gets nudge forward

The appellate court decides not to combine the injunction case with a related motion seeking dismissal over standing.
The First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. [Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times]
The First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. [Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times]
Published Sept. 29, 2020

A small decision by the 1st District Court of Appeal could put the state’s school reopening lawsuit back on track for the expedited ruling that many expected.

In a three-sentence order, the court announced it would not combine the original case seeking temporary injunction against the Department of Education emergency order with a second related case asking to reconsider the Florida Education Association’s standing to bring the suit.

A Leon County circuit judge issued the temporary injunction after rejecting the state’s argument that the teachers union had no legal right to sue. That case is now on appeal.

In addition to challenging the injunction, now in abeyance while most schools offer in-person classes, the state filed a new complaint asking the appellate court to reconsider the initial question of standing. Lawyers for the state argued the cases should be merged, while those for the Florida Education Association opposed the idea.

Related: In Florida school reopening lawsuit, sides find little agreement

By keeping the two matters separate, the court paved the way for an earlier ruling on the injunction issue than if they had been combined. The sides have filed all their briefings on the original question, while responses on the subject of standing have not all been submitted.

Though the matter of whether classrooms should be open before the end of August now might seem moot, with only two districts — Miami-Dade and Broward — still battling not about the date but the face-to-face requirement, the underlying issue remains critical going forward. Specifically, observers are watching to see whether the courts say school boards or the state government have the authority to decide how and when local schools operate.

Education commissioner Richard Corcoran has repeatedly derided the case, saying the state acted to protect school districts by not cutting per-student funding even as enrollment declined. He recently suggested the union undercut its own argument by asking Gov. Ron DeSantis to extend the order’s funding protections through the end of the school year.

Related: State teachers group calls on DeSantis to protect education funding

Ron Meyer, one of the union’s lawyers, said the group never challenged the department’s willingness to continue funding schools based on pre-pandemic projections, and without regard to whether the students were online or in person. Its lawsuit was based on other parts of the emergency order that told districts to open classrooms based on state rather than local considerations, he said.

The appellate court received the case in late August. Its eventual decision could be appealed further to the state Supreme Court.