Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson ruled in favor of Florida’s statewide teachers union Monday, saying Department of Education officials “essentially ignored the requirement of school safety” when they ordered campuses to reopen for face-to-face classes this month.
Dodson also found that the department’s order, issued July 6, trampled on school boards’ constitutional authority to operate their own school systems.
“The districts have no meaningful alternative,” Dodson wrote. “If an individual school district chooses safety, that is, delaying the start of schools until it individually determines it is safe to do so for its county, it risks losing state funding, even though every student is being taught.”
Taryn Fenske, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said the state had filed its appeal before the close of business Monday. Education commissioner Richard Corcoran said he was “100 percent confident” the state will win.
The lawsuit was filed by the Florida Education Association, a labor organization representing about 145,000 teachers across the state.
“This fight has been, and will continue to be, about giving every parent, every teacher and every student a choice, regardless of what educational option they choose,” Corcoran said in a statement. “If you are one of the 1.6 million students who have chosen to return to the classroom, a parent, or a classroom teacher that wanted to educate their student in person, we strongly encourage you to call the Florida Education Association and tell them to drop this frivolous lawsuit.”
Through questioning during Friday’s closing arguments, Dodson hinted that he was interested in a solution that did not have school districts facing a monetary hit for taking actions that they deemed in the best safety interest of their students and staff.
“An injunction in this case will allow local school boards to make safety determinations for the reopening of schools without financial penalty,” he wrote. “This is what the local school boards were elected to do.”
He ruled that the order would become constitutional if the unconstitutional portions were deleted, as the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued during their closing comments. So he struck out the order language relating to a required date to begin in-person classes, mandatory reopening plans and provisions that in recent weeks have tied districts’ reopening decisions to state funding.
The judge used Hillsborough County’s experience as a primary example in the case. The Hillsborough School Board voted 5-2 to delay reopening its classrooms by four weeks, relying on the advice of several local health experts.
When informed of that move, Corcoran deemed the district’s action as violating the reopening order and warned officials they could lose up to $23 million monthly if they did not make changes. After trying to reach a compromise, the district changed direction without a School Board vote and announced it would reopen campuses Aug. 31 — three weeks earlier than planned.
Students began their classes online on Monday.
The district “had no real choice,” Dodson wrote. The state, he found “arbitrarily prioritized reopening schools statewide in August over safety and the advice of health experts; and all school districts complied in order to avoid a drastic loss of State funding.”
Hillsborough School Board member Tamara Shamburger, who testified for the plaintiffs, said she was excited about the ruling and pleased the judge recognized the importance of local decision making in these matters. She anticipated the board, which meets Tuesday, will revisit the situation.
“Our vote is still our vote, which is to delay the first four weeks,” Shamburger said, noting no action had been taken to overturn that decision. “I absolutely believe that ... we must have this conversation.”
The Pinellas County School Board, which opened both in-person and remote classes on Monday, also meets on Tuesday, where it, too, could discuss the ruling and its role in reopening.
Board chairwoman Carol Cook said she was thrilled the judge ruled in favor of local control of schools. But she had her doubts about changing direction on the school year.
“So far, I’m hearing that things went well” on the first day, Cook said. “I would have to really give it some serious thought whether we want to throw everybody back into disarray.”
Pasco County School Board vice chairman Allen Altman did not anticipate any change in his district, where about 60 percent of students returned to campuses for classes on Monday.
“I’ve talked to several school leaders today and they all say that opening went great,” Altman said via text message. “They reported that students, parents and school staff were all excited to be back.”
Ron Meyer, one of the union’s attorneys, said that the judge’s order would allow districts act as they see fit. They could delay reopening buildings without financial penalty, for example, if local officials decided to do so based on the advice of health experts.
It still could be a dicey move, though, he noted.
That’s because the state’s appeal triggers an automatic stay of the ruling. The plaintiffs likely will seek an order overturning the automatic stay, Meyer said.
If the stay remains in effect, it’s as if the judge’s order does not exist. If the stay is removed, then the order stands.
Florida Education Association president Fed Ingram called on Corcoran and Gov. Ron DeSantis not to appeal the case.
“Let’s work together,” Ingram said during a video news conference Monday. “We can do this together.”
The judge issued his order after two full days of testimony, and two hours for closing arguments. The lawyers representing the state presented witnesses to back the contention that children do not pass COVID-19 to adults, which the plaintiffs called “fallacious,” and that the risks of keeping schools closed are more detrimental than opening them.
They further argued that teacher plaintiffs in the case, who said they were faced with returning to unsafe work conditions or quitting, had no legal injury. They said teachers could file grievances against their districts through their contracts to fight such decisions.
But the defense lawyers also acknowledged that the districts did face stiff financial penalties if they didn’t comply with the reopening order. They suggested that, since no school boards were party to the suit, they were not coerced into adopting the plans, which they weren’t forced to submit.
Dodson disagreed with that assessment, suggesting they were financially bullied into compliance, which he said is unconstitutional. He further noted that the order’s provision allowing boards to seek advice and orders from health department officials to remain closed was “essentially meaningless,” though it sounded good.
“Plaintiffs presented convincing evidence that state health officials were instructed not to provide an opinion on the reopening of schools,” Dodson wrote. “Defendants reduced the constitutional guarantee of a safe education to an empty promise, in violation of the Florida Constitution.”