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Florida school boards try to balance coronavirus emergency with sunshine

Some meet in person, while others have gone virtual.
Pasco County School Board members and senior staff keep their distance at an April 7, 2020, meeting. Two members attended via phone.
Pasco County School Board members and senior staff keep their distance at an April 7, 2020, meeting. Two members attended via phone. [ Pasco County school district/YouTube ]
Published Apr. 8, 2020
Updated Apr. 8, 2020

No one spoke Tuesday at a Pasco County School Board public hearing about plans to send hundreds of elementary students to different schools next year.

It wasn’t for a lack of opportunity.

Despite a state stay at home order, the board conducted its session in its usual meeting room — though it adhered to social distancing guidelines that kept the public out of the chamber until invited in one by one to speak. It also opened a teleconference line for residents to call with comments.

And it created an online link for people to send written thoughts directly to staff and board members.

The goal for Pasco, as well as for other districts across Florida, is to provide public access as required by state open meeting laws while also trying to keep everyone safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Boards have taken a variety of steps to balance the two competing interests.

“We’re telling them there are a number of options and they need to do what’s best for the district,” said Andrea Messina, Florida School Boards Association executive director.

In Hillsborough County, that also meant a combined in-person/teleconference meeting. Lee County had residents submit comments via email up to two hours before its telephonic meeting, Messina said.

The Miami-Dade County board read emailed public comments into the record during its conference call meeting. The Manatee County board held a meeting closed to the public, but also took input remotely in writing.

The issue, Messina said, tied into the fact that while Gov. Ron DeSantis waived the statute requiring an in-person quorum for board meetings, he did not release them from other sections of the Sunshine Law. The agency’s business must be done in public, with residents able to provide input.

That meant the boards still must have at least one meeting per month to vote on business items. That’s more than what the Department of Education initially proposed, when it suggested all board meetings be canceled through June unless the superintendent calls for one, for emergency purposes.

At their meetings, boards have contemplated how to continue doing business in these times. A handful, including Putnam and Brevard counties, handed emergency powers to their superintendents, saying they wanted to limit their time together.

The Broward County board had such an item on its agenda, Messina said, but never took it up.

Pasco board members contemplated reducing their meeting schedule to once per month, also to avoid having the board, staff and residents coming to the chambers when they’re better off separated.

But they quickly decided against even scaling back the meeting frequency after learning that operator-run telephonic meetings are easy to organize and run.

Board member Alison Crumbley said it’s unclear what business might need to take place, and calling an emergency session could be problematic because of notification rules. The only general circulation newspaper serving the region, the Tampa Bay Times, is now being printed and distributed only twice weekly.

Beyond that, board member Cynthia Armstrong said, the board has not ceded its authority to the staff, and it must continue to provide oversight of the operations. Getting emails and watching video reports is helpful, she said, but the board should meet to “have a true handle on the situation that is going on.”

It’s easier, after all, to cancel a scheduled meeting than to add one to the calendar on the fly, board chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin added.

So the board decided to retain its two-a-month meeting calendar, with all the sessions during any declared stay home order taking place via conference call only.

Messina said that’s one viable choice that districts will continue to contemplate. She suggested that the decisions are unlikely to all be the same, because “it really comes down to the school board attorney’s interpretation and ... there is some dispute” among them.

Related: From Education Dive: School boards navigate open meeting laws during closures