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Broward sues over massive education bill as other Florida counties consider joining in

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, right, looks on as Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran speaks during a stop in Tampa last month to announce their 2017 legislative successes, including a sweeping education bill. On Wednesday, the Broward County School Board decided to sue the Legislature over the bill, contending it violates the state Constitution. Corcoran called the suit "clueless" and "arguably heartless." [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Jul. 6, 2017

Just days after it took effect, the sweeping and controversial education bill signed into Florida law last month faces a court challenge.

The Broward County School Board decided Wednesday to sue the state over HB 7069, which creates a new charter school system and requires school districts to share tax revenue for capital projects such as construction and maintenance. The board contends the measure violates the Florida Constitution.

Broward's action could open the floodgates for other school boards to join in.

Sen. Gary Farmer 'pretty confident' legal challenge to HB 7069 will come

Gov. Rick Scott signs HB 7069 education bill into law at Orlando Catholic school

"I've had a number of members of boards reach out to me since 7069 got signed. The question I keep getting is, 'What is everyone else doing?'" said Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "I suspect this will sort of pave the way for these conversations to get on the agendas."

The Pinellas County School Board is among those in the more advanced stages of considering whether to join the challenge.

"At our last workshop, our attorney David Koperski said he was having conversations with attorneys around the state, talking about some things they are concerned about as far as violating the Constitution in that bill," board member Carol Cook said in an interview. "We said, continue the conversation. We'll discuss it when we have more information."

Cook said the item could return to the board at its July 18 workshop. She stressed that Pinellas is not as close to a decision as Broward was.

Reached by email Wednesday, Koperski said he believes there are "legal grounds to challenge some of the components" of the new law and would update the School Board soon.

"It's not going to be an easy decision," Cook said, noting the bill and a legal battle have many pros and cons.

Other districts in the Tampa Bay area are in a wait-and-see mode.

"I haven't talked to any of the board members at all," Hillsborough County School Board attorney Jim Porter said. "We're just sort of watching."

Dennis Alfonso, the lawyer for the Pasco and Hernando school boards, said he had heard rumblings of lawsuit talk, but his boards have had no discussions about joining.

A legal challenge to the law, which Gov. Rick Scott signed in mid-June despite heavy pressure for a veto, had been anticipated.

Several key lawmakers hinted broadly that the bill could not meet the constitutional requirement for focusing on a single subject. The Florida Constitution states that all laws "shall embrace but one subject and matter properly connected therewith, and the subject shall be briefly expressed in the title."

HB 7069 includes more than 60 topics, by some counts — from teacher bonuses and mandated school recess to testing changes and an array of measures that encourage the expansion of charter schools.

That's not the only constitutional concern that Broward's lawyers alleged in a 10-page memo that the board reviewed Wednesday.

They also argued the Legislature violated school boards' constitutional authority to operate, control and supervise all public schools in their districts. They cited the creation of a new "schools of hope" system that will allow charters to take over for failing traditional public schools. And they contended the new law, which took effect July 1, violated the constitutional rules regarding school taxes, with the requirement that districts distribute a portion of their capital funding to charters.

Messina said several board members across Florida have viewed the law as a seizing of their constitutional powers.

"What does one do when they believe one's authority is usurped? They have to ask for an interpretation of that" in court, she said.

Not all school board members had the same reaction, though.

The more conservative Florida Coalition of School Board Members stated on its Twitter account, "It is both unfortunate and unsurprising that Broward Schools would take this action to continue discrimination against public charter students."

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who made the legislation his priority during the session, said in a statement that Broward's lawsuit was "another example of the educational bureaucracy putting the adults who administer the schools ahead of the children who attend the schools."

He added: "Not only is it clueless, it is also arguably heartless, to sue to stop school children from getting recess, disabled children from getting funding, poor children from getting out of failure factories and teachers from getting more pay."

Critics of the legislation cheered Broward's move on Facebook and other social media, and encouraged their own boards to enter the fray. They held out little hope that lawmakers would "fix" any problems identified in the law, as some in the Legislature proposed during debate.

Even before the lawsuit became known, House PreK-12 Appropriations chairman Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. indicated change won't be coming soon.

"It's way too premature," said Diaz, a Hialeah Republican. "Making adjustments going forward — we first have to see what happens instead of jumping the gun."

Times-Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.

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