After hours of discussion and deliberation, Collier County Public Schools will not be joining Lee Schools and several other school districts around the state in a lawsuit to challenge a comprehensive education bill passed over the summer called HB 7069.
The controversial legislation, signed into law after a special session by the Florida Legislature, has faced fierce criticism over its constitutionality. Last week, Alachua, Pinellas, and Wakulla Counties joined in the suit, which now includes about a dozen school districts, challenging, among other things, “schools of hope,” which incentivizes charter schools to open near low-performing public schools, and sharing capital property tax funds with charters.
School board attorney Jon Fishbane said that a challenge against the legislation would be limited in what it could realistically argue. One of the key arguments, that the bill violated state statute by being not being single issue, he said could be easily answered.
“Florida law is clear in its deference to the Legislature and that would give the Legislature the opportunity to cure that,” Fishbane said. “They could call a special session and try to make each item more identifiable. I don’t think that’s going to go anywhere.”
Fishbane said the strongest leg that districts would have to stand on would likely be the schools of hope, provision.
Schools of hope kicks in when a school has earned a grade of a D or lower for three consecutive years. Collier has one school which is close to meeting that designation, Village Oaks Elementary, two years a D school, but the district is asking for a year’s reprieve on that because of all the missed class days from Hurricane Irma.
Board member Stephanie Lucarelli, and Chair Roy Terry supported the idea of the district striking out on its own for a suit, considering that some of the points the main suit is arguing, like capital funds for charters, board members agree with.
“It was a total breakdown of the legislative process, all that had to do was vote on each bill individually and they wouldn’t have all this talk about groups contesting their decision. I would honestly believe most of the bills in 7069 would’ve passed the legislature,” Terry said.
“Palm Beach is filing on its own. We should also file our own. In my opinion it would be more effective. This is a local control issue.”
But board member Erika Donalds, the board’s vice chair, feared that such a suit would be prohibitively expensive for the district.
“We’ve settled workers comp lawsuits because it would cost $50-60,000 to have a hearing,” Donalds said. “A lawsuit at the state level with multiple appeals on a constitutional issue, the number is definitely well into the six figures.”
Fishbane agreed with the assessment, warning that the cost would be well more than the proposed $25,000 – adding that the main lawsuit led by Broward is asking for each district to put up $5,000 up front.
Donalds recommended holding off on any action until the Broward suit goes forward, proposing they wait until the Broward suit files before making a decision.
“If they file something that you see that you agree with, you can always join later,” Donalds said. But otherwise you’re voting on something that you haven’t seen. I think it would be irresponsible to join today.”
That measure passed 4-1, with Lucarelli in dissent.
“Our children and our schools were used as a bargaining chip in the budgeting process so that individual legislators could get what they wanted, namely schools of hope, not what the bulk of the legislature though what was good for our state,” Lucarelli said. “Everyone, including operators of charter schools and their families, should be appalled by this.”
But Donalds countered that the lawsuit shouldn’t be on whether the board agrees with the legislation, and argued that the lack of a lawsuit doesn’t and shouldn’t imply consent from the board.
“I would not make the mistake of saying that by not suing, you are automatically endorsing everything that’s in the bill. We’re trying to make a responsible decision for our district. This is a decision of what’s best for us and our district.”
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