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Florida school reopening lawsuit heads to mediation

Lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis had asked the court to dismiss the case.

The Florida Education Association’s legal fight against the state’s order to reopen schools for in-person learning survived its first major challenge on Friday.

“I am denying the motion to dismiss,” Leon County Judge Charles Dodson said, after hearing arguments for an hour.

Lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis had asked Dodson to short-circuit the case, contending the teachers union lacked standing to bring it. They also argued that the court wasn’t the proper place to decide an essentially political question.

The judge did not agree, saying the merits of this complaint deserve a full airing. However, he added, his ruling was not a declaration that the plaintiffs are on a path to success.

Moreover, he reiterated his stance from Thursday’s scheduling hearing that a better answer could come from the parties themselves.

“This is a case that cries out for the parties to come together and come up with a resolution at mediation,” Dodson said. “I am confident that if you work really hard you can do that.”

He ordered the sides to enter mediation, to conclude no later than midnight Tuesday. If they can’t reach a deal, he has scheduled a hearing on the complaint to begin at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Related: Teacher lawsuit challenges Florida’s school reopening order

David Wells, lead attorney representing the state, said former U.S. Sen. George Lemieux will handle the discussions for his side while he prepares for court. He added that the two sides have already reached out to each other for scheduling, and have started looking for a mediator.

Wells had tried to convince the judge to dismiss the case for several reasons, including the alleged lack of standing of the plaintiffs. Such an argument has killed off other FEA lawsuits in the past, including the union’s challenge of state tax credit scholarships.

He argued that the parents who joined the FEA as plaintiffs had nothing to complain about, as they were not being forced to do anything. He added that the teacher plaintiffs should look to their contracts with their districts to work out their concerns over returning to school, and not to the courts.

Ron Meyer, representing the plaintiffs, said that, unlike in past cases, this was no esoteric question of law that any person might ask. He said the case deals in life and death decisions that parents and teachers are being forced to make based on the state’s arbitrary position that schools must reopen for in-person classes in August.

Wells made a second argument that the plaintiffs had asked the court to step in and make a policy decision relating to education, something the courts had ruled they should not do in the past. He pointed to the recent Citizens for Strong Schools case that a group brought to challenge the state’s school funding system.

In it, the Supreme Court ruled that it should not make decisions on whether the school system is “high quality” as the state Constitution calls for.

Dodson stepped in at that point to note that, in the Citizens case, the justices also made clear that while the efficiency and quality of schools might not be judicially manageable, other constitutional guarantees such as safety and security are.

“Courts deal with issues relating to safety and security all day long,” Dodson said, giving the first hint that he wasn’t going to grant the dismissal motion.

In opposing the motion, Meyer stressed that the plaintiffs aren’t asking the court to make decisions on funding or quality of education. Rather, he said, the point is to determine whether the governor and education commissioner ignored the constitutional requirement for a safe and secure school environment in promoting their arbitrary demand that schools open their doors.

As an example, he mentioned schools in Hillsborough County, where local officials tried to implement their own reopening plan based on local medical advice, only to be rebuffed this week by the state.

“What we have here is an executive order that says you only get funding if you do it my way,” Meyer said. “We think that’s arbitrary.”

Wells made a final attempt to convince the judge, rebutting some of Meyer’s arguments. But Dodson was quick to decide once Wells finished.

The mediation is to begin no later than 9 a.m. Tuesday.

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