HB 7069 – Florida Politics

School boards continue battle over controversial law

School boards from across the state have gone to the 1st District Court of Appeal as they continue to challenge a controversial 2017 law that includes steps to boost charter schools.

Eleven districts signed on to notices filed last week indicating they will appeal an April 17 ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper that upheld the law. As is common, the notices do not detail the arguments the school boards will make at the Tallahassee-based appeals court.

The legal battle centers on a measure, commonly known as HB 7069, that was a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, and became one of most-controversial issues of the 2017 Legislative Session. The wide-ranging law included changes such as requiring county school boards to share local property-tax revenues with charter schools for building-related expenses. It also set the stage for adding new charter schools — dubbed “schools of hope” — that will serve students whose traditional public schools have been considered low-performing.

School boards filed the lawsuit last year arguing, at least in part, that HB 7069 infringed on their constitutional authority to operate public schools within their districts.

 But Cooper rejected the school boards’ arguments.

One notice of appeal was filed last week by the school boards in Alachua, Bay, Broward, Hamilton, Lee, Orange, Pinellas, Polk, St. Lucie and Volusia counties, according to documents posted on the Leon County clerk of courts website. Another notice was filed by the Collier County School Board, which intervened in the case after it was originally filed in circuit court.

Is insurrection erupting within statewide teachers union?

In a seeming act of civil war, the second-in-command of the state’s teachers union says he’s now vying to take over leadership of the Florida Education Association (FEA).

FEA vice president Fedrick Ingram, the first African American elected president of United Teachers of Dade, on Friday posted an announcement on Facebook that he was running for union president against incumbent Joanne McCall.

The issue: The union needs to be “better, more powerful and proactive,” he said. Teachers have long been upset about the Legislature encroaching on public education, saying it’s boosting private schools at their expense and starving county schools systems of needed funding.

Ingram (via Facebook).

His “team,” he added, includes Andrew Spar for Vice President and Carole Gauronskas for Secretary-Treasurer.

“It has always been my way to work out differences from the inside,” he wrote, never mentioning McCall by name.

“However, there comes a moment in one’s life when matters become so serious and challenges so steep that hard decisions must be made. The circumstances at FEA are just that serious.”

A request for comment was left Friday with a FEA spokesman.

In a story published by POLITICO Florida Monday, McCall said she was “surprised, shocked and saddened” by Ingram’s decision to challenge her. Referring to her work with Ingram and FEA Secretary-Treasurer Luke Flynt, McCall said “the three of us have done much great work together as a team.”

“We have been working with a hostile legislature for two decades,” she wrote in the email. “The only way to make the necessary changes to current statutes is to elect true public education champions — people that actually care about our students, teachers, education staff professionals and our public schools.”

“This process didn’t get this way overnight and it won’t be fixed overnight,” she said. “However, staying laser focused on the strategy and mission that we have begun since my tenure (which is working) will make the difference.”

She added that she is looking forward to Election Day, when she expects “to elect more pro public education Senators and House members along with a pro public education governor so that our students have the best quality educators and the resources they deserve to do their jobs.”

The rest of Ingram’s letter follows:

“In 2015, I ran for FEA Vice President because I thought I could make a difference and help build FEA into a more powerful organization that would be a leader in the fight for our public schools. That’s still my intent. But time is an enemy.

“The unprecedented attack on our members from the passage of HB 7069 and HB 7055 in two consecutive years should cause us all to reevaluate and rethink our strategy, tactics and our goals.

“We are in the fight of our lives. Make no mistake about it. Our anti-union opponents are not coming after us because of who we are; they are coming after us because of who we can become. We simply can’t continue to conduct business as usual.

“We can win – for teachers, educational support professionals, higher ed, for those who will come after us and for those who have paved the way, and most of all for our students.

“But we cannot win with the reactive approach that has held our state organization back. That is why I’m announcing my candidacy today for President of the Florida Education Association.

“Two outstanding leaders join me. Andrew Spar, President of the Volusia United Educators, who also serves as the Florida AFL-CIO’s Secretary/Treasurer, is running for FEA Vice President; and Carole Gauronskas, the President of the St. Johns Educational Support Professional Association, is seeking the position of FEA Secretary-Treasurer.

“Together we launch this campaign, not because it’s easy but because it’s hard and because it’s necessary. The easy route for all of us would be to go with the flow and to pretend everything will work itself out – business as usual. We can’t do that …

“With your help and guidance we can build a better statewide union. This year we have seen an unprecedented organizing effort from our locals. You deserve the credit for giving us a foundation on which to build.

“Now we must shift to a long-range plan that includes strong support for locals under 50-percent membership and moving members to activists, and activists to leaders. We need to ensure that all of our locals, including those representing education support professionals and higher education faculty, are valued members in this team effort.

“In the coming weeks, we will continue this conversation about what FEA can become and how we can play offense instead of defense.

“These are challenging times, but challenges can be overcome. I give speeches all the time these days, but early in my life I had a stutter that was so severe that I couldn’t speak clearly until I was seven-years-old.

“A music teacher made a difference in my life. She told me to think about what to say (or sing), focus, take a deep breath and go for it. I overcame the stutter and went on after college to become a teacher, a school bandleader, and eventually Miami-Dade County Teacher of the Year and a Florida Finalist for Teacher of the Year, UTD President, and today FEA Vice President.

“What kind of union do you want? If you believe, as we do, that it’s time for a vision, a new strategy and tactics in order to survive and thrive, then focus, take a deep breath and go for it. Join us. Together we can build a better, more powerful and proactive FEA.

“In solidarity, Fed.”

Judge rejects challenge to controversial school law

Rejecting arguments of school boards across the state, a Leon County circuit judge this week formally rejected a challenge to a controversial 2017 law that included a series of moves to boost charter schools.

Circuit Judge John Cooper, who had earlier indicated he would turn down the challenge, issued an 18-page ruling Tuesday siding with the Florida Department of Education and the State Board of Education, the defendants in the case.

The lawsuit centered on a measure, commonly known as HB 7069, that was a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, and became one of most-controversial issues of the 2017 Legislative Session. Debate about the measure highlighted continuing tensions between local school districts and the state about oversight and expansion of charter schools, which are public schools but are often run by private operators.

The mammoth law included changes such as requiring county school boards to share local property-tax revenues with charter schools for building-related expenses. It also set the stage for adding new charter schools — dubbed “schools of hope” — that would serve students whose traditional public schools have been considered low-performing.

Among other issues, the law called for school districts to provide federal Title I funding — which is designed to help schools that serve large numbers of low-income students — to charter schools.

School boards in Alachua, Bay, Broward, Clay, Duval, Hamilton, Lee, Orange Pinellas, Polk, St. Lucie, Volusia and Wakulla counties filed the lawsuit last year arguing, at least in part, that HB 7069 infringed on their constitutional authority to operate public schools within their districts. The Collier County School Board also intervened in the case.

Cooper held a hearing April 4 and, according to Tampa Bay Times and Orlando Sentinel reports, said he would rule in favor of the state. He then issued the 19-page final order and judgment this week rejecting the arguments raised by the school boards.

For example, Cooper dismissed an argument that the law required school boards to share local property-tax revenues with charter schools in an arbitrary way.

“HB 7069’s enrollment-based formula for charter-school capital-outlay funding accounts for the fact that schools with more students need more classrooms, and charter schools are required to spend capital-outlay funding for substantially the same purposes as school districts,” Cooper wrote. “The local boards have not shown that the capital-millage (property tax) provisions are constitutionally different from the numerous other, presumptively constitutional requirements governing the use of local tax dollars in Florida’s public schools — which have included charter schools for more than 20 years.”

As another example, Cooper rejected arguments that school districts have a right to decide how to allocate Title I money.

“HB 7069’s effort to direct more Title I funding toward individual schools is also rationally related to legitimate concerns about ensuring that Title I funds benefit schools with the highest proportion of economically disadvantaged students,” the judge wrote.

High-profile Florida Supreme Court cases still hanging fire at year’s end

Partly because they came late to the court this year, some high-profile cases before the Florida Supreme Court will remain unresolved by the close of 2017.

As of this writing, the court’s weekly opinion release was going to be on holiday hiatus until Jan. 11, though “out-of-calendar releases” are still possible, a spokesman said.

Here are a few of those pending matters, starting with the court’s official summary:

— Herssein & Herssein v. United Services Automobile Association: “This case asks whether judges commit an ethical violation if they are Facebook ‘friends’ with litigants in cases pending before them.”

The justices decided to weigh in after an August ruling by the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeal that rejected a request to disqualify Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko.

The dispute stems from Butchko being a Facebook friend of attorney Israel Reyes, who was hired to represent an insurance-company executive in a case before her.

The Herssein Law Group is seeking the disqualification; it sued a former client, United Services Automobile Association, for alleged breach of contract and fraud.

— School Board of Alachua County v. Richard Corcoran: “This case involves a challenge to an education bill passed by the 2017 Legislature.”

A group of school boards is asking the court to block a wide-ranging education law passed this May. The boards filed a constitutional challenge to the bill, known by its number, HB 7069.

The 274-page bill, backed by House Speaker Corcoran, deals with controversial subjects such as charter schools and teacher bonuses. The challenge contends that the law violates part of the Florida Constitution that requires legislation to deal with single subjects.

Those named in the case are the school boards of Alachua, Bay, Broward, Hamilton, Lee, Polk, St. Lucie, Volusia and Wakulla counties.

(Ed. Note: The Supreme Court has since transferred the case to a Tallahassee trial court to handle.)

— International Association of Firefighters v. State of Florida: “This case involves a challenge to the Governor’s 2015 veto of firefighter pay raises.”

The union wants the court to strike down Gov. Rick Scott‘s 2015 veto of pay raises for the state’s firefighters.

The 1st District Court of Appeal previously ruled that Scott’s veto of $2,000 pay raises did not violate collective-bargaining rights. That court said Scott acted within his authority to veto spending items in the state budget, and that lawmakers could have overridden the veto but did not.

The Legislature included the $2,000 raises for firefighters in budget fine print known as “proviso” language, which Scott subsequently vetoed.

Attorneys for the state say the appeals court “merely applied a clearly articulated constitutional right” of the governor to veto spending items.

— Dante Martin v. State of Florida: “This case challenges criminal convictions related to a college hazing incident.”

Martin is appealing his convictions in the 2011 hazing death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion. Oral argument is set for Feb. 7.

Martin and Champion were both members of the school’s famed “Marching 100” band. Champion, 26, succumbed to internal injuries after a brutal beating ritual with fists, mallets and drumsticks in a band bus that was parked outside a game in Orlando.

According to an Associated Press story, “the case brought into focus the culture of hazing in the band, which was suspended for more than a year while officials tried to clean up the program.”

Martin, now 30, was sentenced in 2015 to 6 years and 5 months in prison on felony manslaughter and hazing charges, according to the Department of Corrections website. He is currently serving his time in the Wakulla Work Camp, with a release date of April 2020.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this post, republished with permission.

Jim Rosica’s review of top state government stories of 2017

Spoiler alert: If you’re a regular of this site, and reading this story, you can guess what the #1 pick is.

Otherwise, 2017 still offered a bounty of material to Tallahassee’s reporting ranks. We still chuckle at the uninitiated who ask, “What do you write about when the Legislature isn’t in session?”

Without further ado, here’s the admittedly subjective list of the Top 10 (and a half) stories to come out of the Capitol in the Year That Was:

#10 — State finally passes ride-sharing legislation: After years of trying, lawmakers OK’d, and Gov. Rick Scott signed, a bill (HB 221) creating statewide regulations for ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft. In fact, lawmakers had considered such legislation for four years before passing a bill this year.

The legislation, among other things, requires Uber, Lyft and similar “transportation network companies” to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged into the app, but hasn’t yet secured a passenger. When a driver gets a ride, they need to have $1 million in coverage.

The bill also requires companies to have third parties run criminal background checks on drivers. It also pre-empts local ordinances and other rules on transportation network companies, or TNCs.

The losers? Local governments, whose attempts to regulate or rein in ride-share got pre-empted, and, well, taxi companies.

#9 — Rick Scott, Aramis Ayala and the debate over the death penalty: Ayala, a Democrat and the Orlando area’s top prosecutor, enraged Scott and conservative lawmakers when she announced in March she would not seek capital punishment in any murder cases.

Scott, a Naples Republican, began unilaterally reassigning death penalty-eligible cases to another state attorney. Republican Rep. Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs called for Ayala to be removed from office for dereliction of duty.

The controversy made it to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled Scott has the authority to transfer murder cases away because she refuses to pursue death. Ayala, elected in 2016, responded by announcing she would set up a special panel to review the death penalty’s appropriateness of each case.

But as of this month, Ayala and Scott were still sniping, with the governor accusing her of missing a deadline and blowing a capital punishment prosecution. Ayala denied that but did cut a plea deal with Emerita Mapp, in which she pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence for a Kissimmee slaying.

#8 — Puerto Rico migration could remake Central Florida: With many still without power after Hurricane Maria slammed the island in September, more than 250,000 residents of Puerto Rico have now decamped to Florida, most to the Central Florida region, with one advocate calling it a “migration of biblical proportions.”

Curbed said the “sudden influx will also put pressure on housing, social services, and the job market that have yet to be fully addressed by state, local, and federal officials.”

But Scott ordered the opening of “disaster relief centers” providing state services to thousands. Cortes filed a bill to address housing needs for evacuees. Sen. Vic Torres, a Kissimmee Democrat, pressed FEMA to provide more housing relief. U.S. Reps. Darren SotoStephanie Murphy, and Dennis Ross co-signed a letter to the feds for Florida get its full funding as a host state to support the migration.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart is working on a plan to allow Puerto Rican high schoolers to receive Puerto Rico diplomas in Florida, in case they can’t meet Florida’s graduation requirements. And those are just a few examples.

#7 — The fight over HB 7069: The wide-ranging education law passed this May — a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran — has been called a “brew of bad policy” and “a textbook example of a failure in government transparency” by opponents.

They say it will benefit charter schools to the detriment of traditional public schools. Supporters counter that it “helps all students” by holding failing public schools to account.

The law offers all kinds of changes, including requiring recess and reducing mandatory testing. It accelerates state tax dollar funding to for-profit and nonprofit charter and private schools, expands parents’ abilities to choose schools, and tightens Tallahassee’s control over what local school boards can and cannot do.

A group of school boards sued in the Supreme Court to block the law; the justices, in a 4-3 decision, have since transferred the case to a Tallahassee trial court to handle. 

#6 — Enterprise Florida, VISIT FLORIDA survive a hit: Corcoran went full frontal this year, trying to scuttle Scott’s favored organizations and a multitude of business incentives last Legislative Session.

He derided Enterprise Florida, the state’s jobs-creating organization, as little more than a dispenser of “corporate welfare.” Though a public-private partnership, it doles out mostly public dollars.

He slammed VISIT FLORIDA, the tourism marketing group, for secret deals and an overall lack of transparency. Scott and lawmakers eventually worked out a deal to save the agencies and create an $85 million Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, focused on promoting public infrastructure and job training.

Meantime, the organizations now are subject to heightened oversight. And Ken Lawson, the former DBPR secretary whom Scott moved to head the tourism agency, toured the state to meet with local tourism leaders. “I want to earn your trust and learn from you first hand. This has been a hard year for all of us,” he said.

#5 — Special elections churn the Legislature: The turnover in legislative seats began with former South Florida Sen. Frank Artiles resigning after an epithet-laden tirade against two black lawmakers was made public, eventually leading to the seat flipping to a Democrat, Annette TaddeoRepublican Jose Felix Diaz lost that race but had to resign the House to run, meaning his House seat is open.

Plant City Republican Dan Raulerson quit the House this year for health reasons; Republican Lawrence McClure won the District 58 seat in a December special election. Republican Alex Miller, just elected in 2016, also resigned her Sarasota-area House seat this summer. She cited a need to “spend more time at home than my service in the Legislature would allow.”

But wait — there’s more. Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens quit after his extramarital affair with a lobbyist came to light. Republican Neil Combee resigned the House to take a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the GOP’s Eric Eisnaugle also left the House to become an appellate judge, and Democrat Rep. Daisy Baez resigned before pleading guilty to perjury in a criminal case over her residency in Coral Gables-based House District 114.

#5(a) — Speaking of Artiles … : He resigned his Senate seat rather than face a hearing that could result in his expulsion. The Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at The Governors Club.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Thurston and Gibson are black. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor, but Thurston filed a Senate rules complaint. Artiles, elected to the Senate in 2016 after six years in the House, initially called efforts to remove him politically motivated. (Sound familiar?)

#4 Speaking of Clemens … : The Lake Worth Democrat was the first in the Legislature this year to resign after reports of sexual misconduct. “I have made mistakes I ashamed of, and for the past six months I have been focused on becoming a better person,” he said in a statement to news media. 

“But it is clear to me that task is impossible to finish while in elected office. The process won’t allow it, and the people of Florida deserve better. All women deserve respect, and by my actions, I feel I have failed that standard. I have to do better.”

Clemens, the incoming Senate Democratic Leader, apologized for having an affair with a lobbyist during the last legislative session. That woman “came into possession of Clemens’ laptop, gained access to all his contacts and personal information, then informed his wife of the tryst,” according to POLITICO Florida.

#3 — Jimmy Patronis replaces Jeff Atwater: Patronis had been a Panama City restaurateurstate representative and Public Service Commissioner when Scott tapped him to replace Atwater and become the state’s fourth Chief Financial Officer this June. Atwater quit his term early to become chief financial officer of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

As CFO, Patronis — a Scott loyalist — now is one vote on the Florida Cabinet, in addition to Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. And he has since announced he will seek a full term as CFO in 2018.

The position heads a roughly 2,600-employee agency that includes the state treasury and insurance regulators, as well as being state fire marshal. The CFO also oversees management of the state’s multibillion-dollar financial portfolio. The office was created after the 1997-98 Constitution Revision Commission recommended collapsing several state departments into one, including Insurance, Treasury, State Fire Marshal and Banking and Finance.

#2 — The politics and policy of Hurricane Irma responseIrma’s size and strength put the entire state on notice; thousands of residents and visitors left in advance of catastrophic winds and flooding.

The most significant casualties were in a South Florida nursing home. The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was evacuated Sept. 13 after the facility lost power to its air conditioning system. Eight elderly residents died, with another six perishing in the weeks that followed. Most died from heat exposure. The deaths were later classified as homicides, with a police spokeswoman saying, “Who gets charged is part of the continuing investigation.”

Scott took his own heat after Democrats charged that he had ignored calls for help from the home’s administrators to his personal mobile phone; he said his staff took the messages and forwarded them to the appropriate state officials.

The governor also ordered an emergency generator rule to “ensur(e) that facilities across Florida are coming into compliance and are installing generators to keep their patients safe during a disaster,” he said. But the facilities themselves challenged that move.

The Florida House formed its own special panel to consider the state’s readiness to deal with monster hurricanes. The Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness has been meeting since October. 

#1 — Jack Latvala quits the SenateIn the face of two damning reports on his alleged serial sexual harassment, Latvala turned in his resignation, not effective till Jan. 5, on Dec. 20.

The Clearwater Republican said in a statement he “never intentionally dishonored my family, my constituents or the Florida Senate.” He first served in the Senate 1994-2002, then returned in 2010. Latvala was term-limited next year.

In his characteristically defiant manner, he said: “Political adversaries have latched onto this effort to rid our country of sexual harassment to try to rid the Florida Senate of me.” The 66-year-old Latvala admitted, however, that he “ … perhaps (had not) kept up with political correctness in my comments as well as I should have.”

An investigative report found Latvala “on multiple occasions” offered to trade his vote for sex with an unnamed female lobbyist. That bombshell came toward the end of retired appellate Judge Ronald V. Swanson‘s report into a complaint filed by Rachel Perrin Rogers, a top aide to future Senate President Wilton Simpson.

Perrin Rogers accused Latvala of sexually harassing her and assaulting her on a number of occasions over several years. A second investigation into sexual harassment claims against Latvala, prompted by a POLITICO Florida story, turned up another witness who bolstered an allegation that the senator would offer to trade sex for favorable votes on legislation.

Florida Supreme Court decides to punt away HB 7069 challenge

In a 4-3 decision Tuesday, the Florida Supreme Court handed over a constitutional challenge to a contentious education law to a local court to handle.

Without explanation, the Supreme Court transferred the matter (SC17-1996) to the 2nd Judicial Circuit, headquartered across the street from the Capitol.

School Board of Alachua County v. House Speaker Richard Corcoran “involves a challenge to an education bill (HB 7069) passed by the 2017 Legislature,” the case’s official summary says.

A group of school boards want the court to block the law, championed by Corcoran.

“The 274-page bill makes many changes to state law, ranging from requiring elementary schools to offer daily recess and making it easier for teachers to win bonuses to letting charter schools get a share of school district construction money and making it easier for charters to move into areas with low-performing traditional public schools,” the Palm Beach Post explained.

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga joined with conservative Justices Charles Canady, Ricky Polston and Alan Lawson to transfer the case.

Left-leaning Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy A. Quince “would request responses,” the order said.

“The transfer of this case should not be construed as an adjudication or comment on the merits of the petition, nor as a determination that the transferee court has jurisdiction or that the petition has been properly denominated as a petition for writs of quo warranto and writs of mandamus,” said the court’s order.

“The transferee court should not interpret the transfer of this case as an indication that it must or should reach the merits of the petition,” it added. “The transferee court shall treat the petition as if it had been originally filed there … and is instructed to consider expediting the petition as it appears to be time sensitive based upon the allegations.

“However, a determination to expedite consideration is at the discretion of the transferee court,” the order said. “… No motion for rehearing will be entertained.”

Besides Alachua, the school boards of Bay, Broward, Hamilton, Lee, Polk, St. Lucie, Volusia and Wakulla counties joined the suit.

Its claims are that the law breaks the single-subject requirement in the Florida Constitution, its “title is overly generic and encompasses legislation on a wide variety of subjects,” and is a “prototypical example of logrolled’ legislation.”

Tampa Tiger Bay Club debates charter schools

A debate on traditional public schools vs. charter schools took front and center Friday at the Tampa Tiger Bay Club.

For 68 minutes, a group of education leaders of various backgrounds discussed the issue at the Ferguson Law Center.

Speaking out most prominently for charters was Doug Tuthill, the president of Step Up For Students, the nonprofit group that administers most of the tax credit and Gardiner scholarships in Florida.

He said when it comes to charter schools, the public is voting with its feet, referring to the explosive growth of his program, where there were 28,000 students on Step Up for Student scholarships in 2008, and 115,000 in 2017.

Leading the argument for traditional public schools was Melissa Erickson, the executive director of the Alliance for Public Schools.

She said that she did not fault a single parent for making the choice to attend any school that is available to them. What bothered her, she said, was that the vast majority chose.

“What bothers me is that the majority of parents choose public schools,” she said. “And in these debates and in these conversations, those 86-90 percent of parents’ choice is discounted, and I think that is a problem.”

It’s been a contentious issue for years in Florida, ever since the GOP-led Legislature and former Gov. Jeb Bush put the state on the leading edge of a national movement to offer parents alternatives to their neighborhood schools.

The intense acrimony increased this summer after the Florida Legislature’s passed and Gov. Rick Scott signed HB 7069, which included the controversial ‘Schools of Hope’ provision that allows those charter schools to move into areas where traditional public schools have long records of low state test scores.

Tuthill frequently referred to himself as a progressive Democrat who has broken out of an ideological silo to realize that school choice is the best venue to offer a quality education to students who may live in an area where the public schools are poor. He accused critics of suffering from “confirmation bias” and Erickson specifically of having a “myopic” definition of public education.

“I think we need a more pluralistic understanding of public education,” Tuthill said, adding that someone who works for public radio could still serve the public good, just as someone can work for Academy Prep of Tampa and also serve the public good.

“It’s not a criticism of public schools,” he said. “We need to develop a public education system that embraces diversity.”

“We should be partners, not opponents, because we all want the same thing,” said Hillsborough County School Board member Melissa Snively, trying to defuse the animosity between the two camps. “The public schools need to get their game on, and we can do that. Competition is in the educational marketplace.”

Snively told the audience that when advocates for a new charter school apply to the Hillsborough County School District, they need to go through a rigorous process.

“Once it comes to the board for approval or not, we know that it’s been vetted and every ‘t’ has been crossed and every ‘i’ has been dotted,” she said, adding that if the board rejects the application, they can go to Tallahassee to appeal.

Erickson disputed how much local control school boards have in making that determination, saying as long as the ” ‘i’s are dotted and the ‘t’s are crossed, they have to say yes.” She went on to say that charter schools don’t need to show a certificate of need to be built, but public schools do in order to get capital outlay dollars.

There were two people on the dais directly linked to charter schools: Lincoln Tamayo, head of school at Academy Prep of Tampa, and Monika Perez, principal of Pepin Academy in Tampa, both critically acclaimed institutions.

Tamayo boasted about the fact that his school is made up completely of students of color—82 percent black and 18 percent Latino, with all of them having qualified for the federal free and reduced meals.

Nearly all the students live miles away from the Ybor City located campus where parents have to find transportation for the kids, yet the 98 percent attendance rate is the greatest of any middle school in Hillsborough County.

Erickson said Academy Prep’s success illustrated part of the perception problem that public schools face in 2017.

“We hold up a few shining examples of charter schools and use them to justify the entire system, and then we hold up a few failing examples of public schools and use them to condemn an entire system,” she said.

The Orange County School Board on Monday joined 12 others in Florida in a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of HB 7069.

The suit argues that the bill unconstitutionally forces local school districts to share some local property taxes with charter schools, which are sometimes run by private, for-profit firms, and allows “schools of hope” charter schools to open without oversight from local school boards, among other issues.

Duval Schools move toward litigation on ‘unconstitutional’ Schools of Hope bill

A rainy Monday morning saw the often fractious Duval County School Board move forward in suing the state of Florida.

At issue: HB 7069, the Schools of Hope” bill, which would divert capital dollars to charter schools from local schools.

Multiple urban districts — Broward, Miami-Dade, Orange, and Palm Beach — are already in the mix on a joint lawsuit encompassing nine counties and counting.

The Duval County School Board moved forward toward initiating litigation, with an initial allocation of $25,000 toward the $400,000 estimated costs of the action.

The motion passed 4-2, with board members Scott Shine and Ashley Smith-Juarez in opposition.

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A representative of the Jacksonville Office of General Counsel discussed an memorandum regarding HB 7069, noting that ten other school boards around the state have identified “items of concern.”

“The main arguments essentially are this explicitly infringes with a school board’s Constitutional right” to control schools in its district, handle taxing authority, and other issues that are “vulnerable to a legal challenge.”

The Schools of Hope concept and millage sharing are among those issues that render the bill open to a challenge, as is the standard charter contract and the charter structure writ large.

HB 7069 reduces school boards to a “ministerial function” relative to charter contracts, opined OGC representative Karen Chastain in a pre-vote workshop, presenting a memo that said the bill would “negatively impact” functions of local boards.

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Chair Paula Wright posited that the bill strips prerogatives of the School Board as an “elected body.”

The OGC representative again echoed that the school board would not have ability to negotiate charter contracts, and that “any change to the standard is presumed … to be an infringement.”

Appeals, meanwhile, are difficult.

“If it doesn’t fit in that scope, you really have no teeth,” board member Becki Couch observed.

Another issue: if a charter school closes and stiffs the landlord on the rent, the school board can be on the hook for costs — in part because the school board has to maintain permanent records.

“It’s a real life example that I’ve seen over and over and over,” the OGC representative said.

Couch described the board as a local “representative democracy” example, saying the action of the State Legislature “took away … decision-making at a local level.”

“When they challenge us on a contract, this HB 7069 says we have to pay their attorney’s fees,” Couch said, with the OGC rep saying those costs could be “easily six figures, times two.”

Another wrinkle: capital funds. Mortgages on charter school buildings can often lead the school board to abandon its interest in the building.

Essentially, the thinking is that the board absorbs the risks of private investment on the public dime, and forfeits power to negotiate contracts and other home rule functions in the bargain.

Board member Couch noted that while “we have great charter schools here in Duval County, we also have people who pay taxes and trust us to make decisions on their behalf.”

Couch noted that many charter providers won’t even do business in Duval, because of stringent accountability standards.

“We are an elected body by the people. Representative government,” Couch said. “When you have an outside group that can now begin deciding how to spend outside dollars, it raises the question ‘who’s in charge’?”

“Charter schools can open up across the street from a public school and demonstrate no need whatsoever,” Couch noted.”

“There’s no accountability … it’s a free for all … an experiment,” Couch said, noting that charters have no requirement to show capital needs in the way districts do.

Couch added that charter schools may even be able to operate in public school buildings, further eroding the district’s ability to “protect the taxpayers.”

Chairwoman Paula Wright also suggested that HB 7069 would cut into federal Title I funds, which could abrogate the School Board’s ability to determine the most efficient use of funds.

“This goes against the oath that we took as constitutional officers,” Wright said.

Regarding charter schools, Wright emphasized that DCPS is “one of the most choice-rich districts in the state of Florida.”

“Do we allow HB 7069 to infringe on our local, state, and federal opportunities … for the benefit of our students in Duval County?”

Even Shine realized there’s “a lot of problems with the bill” and a “lot of truth around this table.”

However, Shine thinks pushback will lead to “more to disempower school boards” from Tallahassee.

“If we litigate, we lose the ability to have good faith negotiation,” Shine added.

Shine’s position was in the minority, with multiple board members waxing poetic about the Constitutional obligation to function as an independent board.

“As watchmen of public education,” said Board Member Lori Hershey, “we have an obligation.”

This is a chance, Hershey said, to “stand up for students” against this “unconstitutional” legislation.

Former board chair Ashley Smith-Juarez held forth against this “destructive … beyond problematic” bill, noting that litigation is part of the design of the government.

That said, Smith-Juarez doesn’t feel “litigation is the next step,” with “other tools in the toolbox” being available before “swinging the litigation hammer.”

Board member Warren Jones suggested the bill was passed in Tallahassee despite “conflicts of interest,” noting that “we have to litigate to get their attention” regarding disproportionate impacts.

“We’ve got 10 counties, we’re going to be the 11th one … we are at a point where we have to live with this law or hope it’s repealed,” Jones said, if a lawsuit doesn’t happen.

Chairwoman Wright credited herself with “laying everything on the line” ahead of litigation.

“This is a difficult decision, yet to me it’s not difficult,” Wright said.

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There are caveats: there could be a negotiated solution. The case could be thrown out. The district could withdraw.

But at this point, the board will move forward, investing $25,000 in a suit, with the eye of protecting at least $16M in capital dollars over the next five years.

“There needs to be accountability. We either believe in accountability or we don’t.”

 

Support litigation 4-2, Shine and Smith-Juarez opposed.

State legislators press for Duval School District audit, as district resists

Last fiscal year, the Duval County School District spent $21 million over budget — leading to requests for a “deeper dive” into the numbers, reports the Tampa Bay Times.

Also seeking a “deeper dive” — current State Rep. Jason Fischer, a former member of the Duval County School Board.

However, that deeper dive is not welcomed by the board chair herself.

____

Fischer, in a letter to Joint Legislative Auditing Committee Chair Rep. Debbie Mayfield dated Jul. 24, requests an operational audit into Duval’s budgetary and spending practices.

“As a past Duval County School Board Member,” Fischer writes, “I understand the complexity of their local budget.”

“I’m deeply concerned that the school district is taking their eye off the ball by considering frivolous lawsuits against the State rather than getting their financial house in order,” Fischer adds, referring to Duval’s consideration of suing over HB 7069, the “Schools of Hope” bill for which Fischer was a staunch advocate.

Fischer has “major concerns” about what he calls “$21 million in overspending,” and hopes “this special audit brings clarity and reconciliation to the school district’s poor financial practices.”

“Recently, the district’s questionable budgetary practices have surfaced in the press, triggering pushback from the community and the philanthropic sector,” Fischer adds, continuing to decry this alleged “significant overspending.”

Board member Scott Shine supports Fischer’s request, but that’s not a view shared by the whole board.

____

In a letter sent Tuesday to Duval Delegation chair Rep. Jay Fant, Board Chair Paula Wright asserted that an audit is not necessary. [Chair’s Response to Fischer’s Audit Request]

“Factually and emphatically, the Duval County School Board is not ‘indulging in irresponsible budget practices’, as claimed by our former colleague,” Chairwoman Wright wrote.

Wright, purportedly on behalf of the full board, goes on to “respectfully ask that Representative Fisher’s [SIC] request” for “another operational audit be withdrawn.”

Unknown: when the full board met to discuss the matter.

Fischer, for his part, wonders why board members don’t welcome a state audit in the interest of transparency.

“Why don’t they all welcome a state audit of this? Why don’t they want to be more transparent? What are they hiding?”

____

Fischer’s position is shared by Rep. Joe Gruters, who asserted Wednesday that an audit was “urgent and cannot wait for the next legislative cycle.”

Gruters noted that the resignation of the school district’s CFO is a strong indication that “something is amiss,” in a letter to JLAC Chair Mayfield.

Furthermore, House Speaker Richard Corcoran offered support for Fischer’s position, via Twitter.

That said, the Duval County School District — in the form of spokesman Mark Sherwood — said the proposed audit is unnecessary, given that the School Board has already authorized an independent third party audit.

Sherwood asserted that the money was not deficit spending; rather, was just a dip into reserves, driven by a revenue deficit from a dip in enrollment late in the year, transportation settlements, and regulatory adjustments.

Duval School Board member welcomes state financial audit

On Monday, State Rep. Jason Fischer proposed a state financial audit of the Duval County School Board on which he served until last year.

Fischer’s take: the district is more concerned about potentially suing over the controversial “Schools of Hope” bill he advocated than it is with getting its “financial house in order,” after recent revelations of spending $21M beyond its budget.

Fischer has backup on the board: fellow Republican Scott Shine, who already has amassed $30,000 for his own re-election bid to the body, “welcomes” such an audit.

In an open letter released Tuesday, Shine wrote that he is “not concerned with the possibility of a Legislative Audit.”

“As I suggested to the board [on July 18, we need to institute additional peer review and a Legislative audit can be a part of that review process,” Shine wrote.

Shine also noted that the CFO responsible for the budget imbalance was “removed,” in light of the “considerable mistake” made by the budget office.

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