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Don’t let the state bully Hillsborough schools | Column
The Hillsborough School Board should stand by its decision for the safety of students and staff, writes a teacher.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, on left, along with Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran during a roundtable discussion at Winthrop College Prep Academy,  on Monday in Riverview.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, on left, along with Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran during a roundtable discussion at Winthrop College Prep Academy, on Monday in Riverview. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Aug. 11, 2020

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran’s demand letter to the Hillsborough School Board and Superintendent Addison Davis is nothing more than a shameless, brazen power grab to override a sound, medically based decision enacted by our local leaders. This is typical Tallahassee politics being elevated over the concerns of the very real people who will be put in harm’s way, many of whom have little choice in these matters despite our state’s stance on all stakeholders having such freedom. With our current state of high transmission, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ and Corcoran’s insistence that Hillsborough open its schools will damage far more than the health and lives of many students and staff if we open up too early.

Strawberry Crest High School teacher Ryan Haczynski
Strawberry Crest High School teacher Ryan Haczynski [ Provided ]

Although Corcoran complains that our school district is violating the Department of Education’s emergency order, this order itself is legally questionable. If the commissioner claims that its power is derived from the governor’s executive order, then perhaps we should consult Florida’s Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz for a final say, as one section of the order specifically names him the “state coordinating officer.”

This person has broad authority to “suspend the effect of any statute, rule, or order that would in any way prevent, hinder or delay any mitigation, response or recovery action necessary to cope with this emergency.” Clearly Corcoran and the Department of Education’s overreaching legal labyrinth should be ignored for this reason, especially in light of the surfeit of data and medically sound recommendations from our local healthcare practitioners.

Far worse than the legal loopholes tying our local community into knots, though, will be the economic damage inflicted upon Hillsborough County. It is shameful that elected officials from our president on down the line would withhold funding from public schools in an effort to force us open. Like starving donkeys who are finally shown a carrot after decades of underfunding, school boards and superintendents are being extorted by state powers for political gain.

As the largest employer in Hillsborough, our school district and its educators provide recurring revenue streams for many local businesses; in the early stages of what is sure to be a prolonged recession, to potentially interrupt funding to teachers who rank 47th in average pay in the United States speaks volumes about the lows to which our state will stoop. It also further undermines the hollow words of well-heeled socialites who suddenly care about “the other half” of Florida, many of whom are clueless about the lack of funding. In an ideal world, these would not be issues had the Florida Legislature properly invested in our children.

From the beginning of this public health crisis, the education commissioner has stated we have “100 percent support” and that his default response would be one of “compassion.” The second paragraph of his letter states that the emergency order lets parents seek the educational option “that best suits their child’s needs, including in-person instruction, consistent with public safety,” which the panel of medical experts said it was not. The majority of Hillsborough parents have chosen distance learning and the doctors have spoken — now it is time for the Hillsborough County School Board to take a stand for their constitutionally guaranteed local control.

Ryan Haczynski, a teacher in the International Baccalaureate program at Strawberry Crest High School in Tampa, is a teacher activist and blogger.