Stories about the coronavirus pandemic are free to read as a public service at tampabay.com/coronavirus. If this coverage is important to you, consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Tampa Bay Times at tampabay.com/subscribe.
• • •
TAMPA —The Hillsborough County School Board will do something Tuesday that could be considered unusual in these extraordinary times:
Meet in person.
Six of seven board members will take seats at the dais, spaced farther apart than usual, but still under the same roof. Members of the public who wish to attend or speak will be in the lobby or breezeway, in groups of no more than 10.
It’s all in the interest of transparency, said chairwoman Melissa Snively. She said she wanted to meet virtually during the coronavirus crisis, but agreed to the so-called “hybrid arrangement” on the advice of board attorney Jim Porter.
“We thought very long and hard about how we were going to try and do this in the most transparent, compliant and safe way and this is what we decided,” Snively said. “We’re going to try it and see how it goes.”
It won’t be the usual Tuesday affair, however, when audience seats are packed with staff and contractors, students, and parents.
The secretaries and cabinet officers who usually share the dais with the board members will not be there. Board members will have empty seats between each of them. Member Stacy Hahn, extra cautious because she has a child with a respiratory infection, will attend remotely, patched in from home.
Porter and Superintendent Addison Davis will sit in the area usually occupied by senior staff. Those employees will be at home or in their offices, accessible by phone or video to answer questions.
Community members who want to address the board will be directed inside the meeting room, one at a time. They can watch the rest of the meeting on video monitors in scattered locations. And if they want to send an email instead of appearing in person, they will also have that option.
Why meet at all, when so many local government boards are holding virtual meetings? When the state has already canceled all school board meetings through June 30?
School boards transact business all year long, approving multimillion-dollar contracts for everything from air conditioning systems to textbooks.
To avoid being challenged later on by competing vendors, boards are advised to follow Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine laws strictly. “We’re talking about the bedrock of the Florida public law, open meetings,” Porter said.
In trying to walk this line between transparency and a frightening pandemic, school boards have been hit with a confusing array of directives.
First Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran announced that school board meetings were suspended until June 30, but could take place electronically in an emergency. Then the Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion that said the COVID-19 emergency does not change existing state law. Finally, on March 20, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an order waiving the requirement for a quorum at board meetings, and allowing video and teleconferencing.
But his order did not waive the rest of the sunshine law.
Things are confusing at the local level, too. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor wanted to impose a stay-at-home order. The Hillsborough County’s Emergency Policy Group refused. Ultimately, the group settled on a “safer-at-home” order. But government boards are exempt.
“Everyone’s working through this,” Porter said, "and, honestly everyone’s trying to do what they can to keep people safe and make sure they are in compliance with the law.”
Some school districts, including Manatee and Lee, are holding virtual school board meetings, said Florida School Boards Association executive director Andrea Messina. Others, including Martin and Escambia counties, are taking measures similar to those in Hillsborough. No meetings have been scheduled recently in Pinellas or Pasco.
Messina said it is important that boards follow social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including a limit of 10 people in any one location. But, she acknowledged, those guidelines are subject to change.
As with all school business, the pandemic is forcing leaders to weigh cautiously whether they should stay at home, as health experts advise; or take visible roles in schools and offices.
Davis said Friday that “before I start every meeting, I inform every one of my employees, if you don’t want to be here, if you feel like this is not the best environment for you, and you want to be virtual, or you want to call in, you have the right to do so.”
But, he said, “this organization has to continue to lead, especially with eLearning taking place." Payroll and budget officials must do their jobs, he said. Legislative affairs staff need to keep up with changes in Tallahassee. At the schools, “we’ve got to make sure we have food and nutrition. We’ve got to have custodial staff for deep cleans. We’ve got to make sure we have security.
“We’re taking this very seriously because we realize that the school district is extremely important and we want to stay healthy."