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Florida school board members balk at order to cancel meetings

They questioned the state government’s authority to tell boards not to conduct business through June.
 
The Pinellas County School Board meets on Sept. 10, 2019 to approve its budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year. State officials told school boards to cancel all regular meetings through June 2020 in order to prevent large crowds from gathering and potentially spreading coronavirus.
The Pinellas County School Board meets on Sept. 10, 2019 to approve its budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year. State officials told school boards to cancel all regular meetings through June 2020 in order to prevent large crowds from gathering and potentially spreading coronavirus. [ Pinellas County Schools ]
Published March 18, 2020

Gov. Ron DeSantis had plenty of school news to offer during his Tuesday evening coronavirus update.

Students were to remain out of their schools through at least April 15. Spring testing would be canceled, along with school grades.

Related: Florida scraps K-12 testing, students to stay home through April 15, DeSantis says

It wasn’t until much later in the evening that school board members around the state noticed a line tucked into the Florida Department of Education’s lengthy memo on how to proceed for the next several months. School boards were not to meet through June 30, unless the district superintendent called an emergency session, which must be conducted via either internet or telephone.

“As soon as I saw that last night, I immediately reached out to the department and said, ‘Hey, listen, this is a problem,’” said Florida School Boards Association executive director Andrea Messina, who also consulted her organization’s lawyers.

The issue was twofold.

The Florida Constitution grants school boards the sole authority to operate, control and supervise all free public schools in their districts. And state law requires those boards to hold at least one public meeting each month, with a quorum being physically present.

So the department’s guidance appeared to take powers away from school boards, and place them into the hands of appointed executives. It also seemed to hamper school districts’ ability to do their jobs.

Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning
Pasco schools superintendent Kurt Browning

“We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to have school board meetings,” said Pasco County schools superintendent Kurt Browning, president of the state superintendents association. “I’m going to get clarification from (K-12 chancellor) Jacob Oliva. I’m going to tell him, ‘You need to understand. You cannot with a stroke of a pen cancel school board meetings. We’ve got bills to pay.’”

Given their history with education commissioner Richard Corcoran, who as House speaker championed charter schools and vouchers while often referring to public schools as failures, some board members saw the move as an attempt to push school boards to the side.

Related: Getting tough: Florida's education chief Richard Corcoran tells school districts to fall in line

“It just looks like a power grab,” said Manatee County School Board member Charlie Kennedy, who first raised the concern on Twitter. “I don’t think it’s a mistake.”

Others were willing to give the state the benefit of the doubt. They suggested that with all the fast moving changes of the pandemic, the state was attempting to give school boards some flexibility in the way they operate, and just didn’t present it well.

Pinellas School Board member Carol Cook. [Times files, 2007]
Pinellas School Board member Carol Cook. [Times files, 2007]

“They’re doing short sound bites covering the tip of the iceberg," said Pinellas County board member Carol Cook. “Oftentimes I think the intent is to bypass the school boards. But I don’t think it was this time.”

By midday Wednesday, education department spokeswoman Taryn Fenske was reeling back the language. As with the state’s March 13 directive to extend spring break, Fenske said this action was a “strong recommendation” rather than a requirement, and the department hoped school boards “will act responsibly" to limit large gatherings as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised.

The action was aimed at alleviating boards of their statutory meeting requirements, she said, while still providing the ability to act as needed without everyone being in the same room.

“The messaging is strong because we’re trying to make sure they take it seriously,” Fenske said. “We need to instill a sense of urgency.”

Hillsborough County board member Cindy Stuart said she guessed the department had that intention all along. Her district already was looking into ways to conduct business meetings with minimal in-person contact, Stuart said, noting that the spring is the time that boards renew contracts and create budgets.

But she also readily acknowledged that the power grab theories do speak to many peoples’ gut theory of the way that the state government seems to act.

“I hate that we live in a state of (wondering) what are they trying to do behind closed doors,” Stuart said. “That’s not a good place to be. But that’s how the state works.”

Most involved praised the state for taking strong steps to stem the virus spread in schools, and to remove the added anxiety that testing and school grades carry. They were hopeful that this meeting issue would not get in the way.

“I don’t think it was ill intent,” said Pasco County board chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin. “But there could be some serious repercussions from this. There’s got to be a compromise.”