In a partial win for Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, a Tallahassee-based appeals court on Friday put on hold a Leon County circuit judge’s ruling that said a state mandate for schools to reopen this month amid the coronavirus is unconstitutional.
DeSantis and Corcoran have been locked in a legal slugfest with teachers unions over the education commissioner’s July 6 emergency order requiring schools to reopen five days a week in August or risk losing state funding.
The 1st District Court of Appeal on Friday agreed to a state request to reinstate a stay on Judge Charles Dodson’s ruling, but it refused to approve another request to fast-track the case to the Florida Supreme Court.
Under an order released by the appellate court late Friday afternoon, final briefs in the case aren’t due until Sept. 9, meaning a decision won’t be finalized until nearly all school districts have reopened. The court did not elaborate on its decision to stay Dodson’s ruling but said, “a written order elaborating on this disposition will follow.”
The appellate-court fight comes after Dodson twice this week sided with the Florida Education Association and the Orange County teachers union in lawsuits challenging Corcoran’s order requiring schools to reopen for in-person learning.
The unions argue that Corcoran’s order violates the Florida Constitution’s guarantee of “safe” and “secure” public schools.
After the appeals court put Dodson’s ruling on hold Friday, Florida Education Association President Fedrick Ingram released a statement vowing to continue battling the state over the issue.
“We are going to keep fighting because lives are at stake,” Ingram said. “This is not about closing schools or opening schools. This is about allowing local districts to do what is best to protect local families."
In a temporary injunction issued Monday, Dodson ruled that decisions about whether schools should resume in-person classes amid the coronavirus pandemic should be left to local education officials, who should be allowed to open schools when they deem it is safe without being financially penalized.
The state quickly appealed Dodson’s Monday ruling, which triggered an automatic stay. But Dodson on Thursday sided with a request from the teachers unions and lifted the stay.
Hours after Dodson’s Thursday decision, lawyers for DeSantis and Corcoran asked the 1st District Court of Appeal to reinstate the stay.
Allowing Dodson’s order to remain in effect “would threaten to interfere with the ongoing reopening of schools by local districts and disrupt plans that families have made with respect to their children’s education,” the state’s lawyers argued.
But in a response filed Friday, the Florida Education Association’s lawyers argued that Corcoran’s mandate forces teachers to “needlessly expose themselves to a deadly and contagious virus based solely on a blanket and arbitrary decision that schools must reopen for in-person instruction or lose their funding.”
Amid the continued legal battling about a stay, lawyers for the state also sought to bypass the Tallahassee-based appellate court and have the Florida Supreme Court immediately consider the case, a move the plaintiffs supported.
But while both sides backed sending the case to the Supreme Court, the appellate court refused Friday.
In arguing for fast-tracking the case, the state’s lawyers wrote in a motion Thursday that the time-sensitive legal dispute is an issue of “great public importance” affecting Floridians statewide and meets a legal “pass-through” standard.
“This appeal is of great public importance because the circuit court’s order on appeal impairs the authority of the governor to manage state affairs during an emergency, and it impairs the ability of the state Board of Education to supervise the statewide system of public education,” they wrote.
Dodson’s temporary-injunction order “impacts Florida’s public school students on a statewide basis and improperly intrudes into a public-policy decision of the executive branch made in the context of a global public-health emergency,” the state’s lawyers argued.
The statewide teachers union, in a response filed Friday, agreed that the dispute over Dodson’s temporary injunction has a “statewide effect on the public school system, teachers and parents, and a prompt, authoritative resolution by the Supreme Court is needed.”
But the plaintiffs disagreed that the state’s request “accurately states the facts of the case” or accurately represents Dodson’s Monday order.
The union could have a difficult time winning at the appellate court or the Supreme Court, both of which are stocked with judges appointed by Republican governors. The Supreme Court has a conservative-leaning majority of justices, including two who were appointed by DeSantis.
DeSantis and Corcoran have dug in on the reopening of schools, insisting that families need to have choices about whether children should resume face-to-face instruction or continue with distance learning, which began in March when schools were shuttered statewide as the coronavirus began to spread throughout Florida.
Corcoran’s order required school districts to reopen brick-and-mortar schools five days a week in August, unless state and local health officials say otherwise. But testimony during a hearing last week showed that the Florida Department of Health and county health administrators, who work for the state agency, have refused to weigh in on whether it’s safe to reopen classrooms.
“Make no mistake — plaintiffs want schools to reopen in a brick and mortar environment; but local school boards must have the authority to make those decisions on a local level,” the Florida Education Association’s lawyers wrote, adding that “forcing schools to reopen on an in-person basis based purely on economic rather than safety concerns places all Floridians at risk.”
The legal wrangling has come as schools in many parts of the state have reopened this month. Nearly all of the 67 school districts, which risk losing money if they don’t comply with Corcoran’s mandate, have agreed to resume in-person instruction by Monday. Districts are also offering distance learning.
About 711,000 students are already at their desks and 1.6 million of the state’s 2.8 million children have been signed up for face-to-face classes, according to state education officials.
Corcoran’s order “provides additional flexibility and financial stability for school districts grappling with the potential decline of in-person student enrollment as a result of the pandemic,” lawyers for the state wrote in Thursday’s motion asking the Tallahassee-based appeals court to reinstate the stay on Dodson’s Monday ruling.
The state’s lawyers pointed out that Florida law bases district funding on surveys of the number of children in schools. Schools receive reduced funding for virtual education and are paid only for online classes that are completed.
Corcoran’s emergency order waived the funding requirements for school districts that submitted reopening plans approved by state education officials.
Corcoran, a former House speaker who was hand-picked by DeSantis to serve as education commissioner before being appointed by the State Board of Education, had the authority to waive the funding laws because DeSantis “is authorized to delegate his emergency powers at his discretion, as he has done so here to the commissioner of education,” the state’s lawyers argued.
Corcoran’s mandate “reflects a policy decision” that “was made over the course of several months, after involving numerous education stakeholders, and should not be cast aside during this pending appeal,” they argued.
But the union’s lawyers called the state’s argument a “misdirection” attempting to “distract this court from the true issue — do school boards have the authority to make local decisions as to what is best for their teachers and students based on local health statistics and concerns or not?”
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