In the month since her school’s only fourth grade writing teacher suddenly resigned, Lenora B Smith Elementary Principal Contessa Bryant has hustled to keep things together for some 60 students. Bryant leads writing class between meetings, and when she can’t be there, enlists a team of substitutes to teach the key subject, tested by the state.
Bryant said Friday she has a qualified replacement ready to go. But the principal can’t hire anyone until the district checks the employee’s eligibility to work in the country -- and the district can’t do that until the government shutdown ends.
“We’re unable to hire her because at this time her eligibility can’t be verified,” Bryant said. “She could be cleared in seconds.”
Since the federal government partially closed on the first of the month, Miami-Dade schools has stopped placing new hires in positions, according to John Schuster, distric spokesman. Schuster said that won’t change until the federal E-verify website is up and running again.
“We have 123 new hires, mostly educators, who can’t start work,” he said. “These are people who have been interviewed, selected and can’t begin work. That’s including vacancies at some of the schools with the most critical needs.”
Miami-Dade is one of several Florida school districts that uses E-verify, run by the Department of Homeland Security, to check its employees work status. Florida law doesn’t require it -- an executive order by Gov. Rick Scott mandates only that state employees be checked through the system -- but other districts like Collier and St. Lucie use the system as well.
Still, it’s unclear if any other school systems are running into problems, or taking the same hard-line stance as Dade.
A Broward schools spokeswoman said the district continues to hire. And a Florida Department of Education spokeswoman said the department isn’t affected because the federal government, to compensate for the shutdown, waved a requirement that employers submit employees’ work eligibility information to the system within three days of hiring them.
Immigration attorneys said Friday that the district might be acting in an overly cautious manner.
“They shouldn’t be afraid to hire because of the e-verify shutdown. If they complete the I-9 in good faith, that’s the employer’s defense,” Attorney Alex Solomiany√ said.
But Schuster said the district isn’t comfortable with hiring teachers without verifying their immigration status.
“If we’re audited and found to be in violation, we could be fined,” Schuster said. “Were we to come to a situation where we hire a teacher, if the teacher were found unable to work, we’d have to pull that teacher out of school and find a new one, which is a very dangerous situation for any school district.”
The issue might be moot if D.C. politicians can come to an agreement to end the shutdown, and talks were ongoing Friday night. Until then, Bryant might have to keep jumping from meetings to the fourth grade classroom.
“It’s a serious situation,” she said, “not to have a teacher in the room.”