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Hillsborough School Board will not join lawsuit challenging Florida's new education law

Booker T. Washington Elementary in Tampa is one of 37 schools that require extra reading time under Florida's new education law. Hillsborough County School Board members are discussing the law's implications in meetings today, including whether to sue the Legislature. [Times files | 2010]
Booker T. Washington Elementary in Tampa is one of 37 schools that require extra reading time under Florida's new education law. Hillsborough County School Board members are discussing the law's implications in meetings today, including whether to sue the Legislature. [Times files | 2010]
Published Sep. 28, 2017

TAMPA — The cash-strapped Hillsborough County School District will not sue to overturn a sweeping new education law, School Board members decided Thursday.

One by one, they gave their reasons: A lawsuit is too expensive. It would consume too much staff time. And it could poison relationships with lawmakers.

"They're watching. They're really, really watching," said board member April Griffin.

Board member Lynn Gray pushed hard to join a suit envisioned by 14 other districts, including Pinellas County.

"Taking away the ability to serve our children … in an equitable way is nothing short of a moral crime in my view," Gray said. "I was voted in to stand for education."

By that time, board members Susan Valdes and Melissa Snively — who were not at Thursday's workshop — had already left word through the board's attorney, Jim Porter, that they would not support the suit.

The discussion, which did not include a formal vote because the gathering was not a business meeting, followed a presentation about how the law is affecting the state's third-largest school district.

THE GRADEBOOK: All education, all the time

Federal funds to counteract the educational effects of poverty will be carefully controlled, with the district no longer able to concentrate them at its poorest schools.

Changes to the testing schedule will create a scramble at the end of the year, and local property tax dollars will be shared with privately managed charter schools.

Then there are legal grounds on which some districts want to attack the law. Among them: It covers many topics instead of one, and it undermines the authority of local districts.

In weighing the decision, Hillsborough board members considered a number of issues that set them apart from the other districts.

Most had to do with money.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Pinellas votes 7-0 to help sue Legislature over new law favoring charter schools

Hillsborough is in the third year of austerity measures that began when officials realized they were depleting their reserves to pay for costly projects including an experimental teacher evaluation system.

The district has debts of nearly $1 billion, much of it to bondholders who jointly hold mortgages on the newer schools. There are deferred maintenance costs of almost $1 billion more, and a growing problem with air conditioners and roofs in need of repair.

Added to that is $1.2 billion the district will need to build new schools in high-growth areas, chiefly in the southeast part of the county.

These issues have strained resources, and board members worried that top administrators might be needed to participate in the lawsuit.

Costs of $500,000 or more would fall largely to Hillsborough, as it is one of the state's largest districts. Not wanting to take money from the classroom, the district probably would have paid those bills with interest on investments.

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The issue of retaliation also came up, as members feared their participation would hurt them in the next two or three legislative sessions.

"Political ramifications? What's left?" said chairwoman Cindy Stuart, who said she was "torn" on the question of whether to sue.

But, like some of the others, she also considered that financial issues could leave Hillsborough with little choice but to initiate or take part in a sales tax referendum. That campaign, plus a lawsuit, would be too much to take on, board members concluded.

Still, they agreed to document how much the new law will cost the district, and continue to lobby to revise it. "Whether we join our not, this legislation has to be corrected," Stuart said.