Miami-Dade County Public Schools could decide as soon as Wednesday whether to join Broward County and other school districts in challenging the constitutionality of a sweeping K-12 education reform law that took effect this month.
Miami-Dade School Board members are holding a workshop to discuss their legal options when it comes to House Bill 7069 — but it’s evident by legal counsel they’ve already received which avenue they’re most likely to pursue: suing the state.
Tapping the help of three outside legal firms, the district has already spent about $9,900 to research the constitutionality of HB 7069, a district spokeswoman said Monday. According to documents requested by the Herald/Times, some of that legal advice came even before the final version of the legislation was introduced and passed in the final days of the session in early May.
With five memos in all, each raises questions about the law’s constitutionality and presents arguments the district could use in court. Chief among them are various ways, the attorneys argue, that the law grants new powers to privately managed charter schools and bypasses the authority of locally elected school boards to oversee public schools within their districts.
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3 school districts have voted to sue over HB 7069: Broward, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties. Several others, including Miami-Dade, are likely to follow suit.
At board members’ request, School Board attorney Walter Harvey compiled the district’s potential legal options in a memo this month. Twelve pages of it are dedicated to reasons the district could argue that HB 7069 is unconstitutional — much of it echoing what Broward County presented when its school board was the first to vote to sue in early July.
Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district shared its “great deal of research” with Broward and other districts across the state, which are also concerned about the law’s constitutionality.
Along with Broward, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties have also voted to sue, although no lawsuit has yet been filed. Many others are likely to join the effort, including Pinellas, Duval, Manatee, Bay and Lee counties.
Carvalho told the Herald/Times he anticipates “direct guidance” from the board Wednesday about how Miami-Dade wants to proceed in response to the law. A formal vote isn’t likely until the board’s next meeting, which is scheduled for Aug. 9.
“This was a topic that was heavily debated during a board-staff retreat that we held during legislative session,” Carvalho said. “We’ve already had one very in-depth conversation, and I think on the 26th the workshop will provide an opportunity for the board to discuss the issue and provide guidance on the next steps.”
Harvey noted in his memo to Miami-Dade School Board members that the cost of a joint lawsuit with other districts would likely be shared proportionally based on student enrollment in each district. Because Miami-Dade and Broward are the largest districts, that means taxpayers in those counties would shoulder the greatest share of the cost.
Meanwhile, less than two pages of Harvey’s memo focused on explaining alternative actions the district could take, such as working with the state Department of Education on its rule-making to implement the law or advocating lawmakers to “amend some of the provisions of HB 7069 that offend the Florida Constitution.”
If recent history is any indication, though, seeking cooperative action by lawmakers might be futile.
Miami-Dade district leaders, and those of other districts, tried that during the legislative session and their concerns were largely dismissed — particularly in the House, which crafted the law and orchestrated its rushed passage above a firestorm of protest from traditional public school advocates.
The top lawmakers on education policy in the House — who also sponsored HB 7069 — are both from Miami-Dade: education chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, and Pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah.
Even as some Republican and Democratic senators have called for HB 7069 to be “fixed” in the 2018 session, that’s not something the House will entertain. Diaz previously told the Herald/Times such talk was “way too premature.”
Miami-Dade and Broward counties have led the resistance against HB 7069, with Carvalho and Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie coming out strongly against the bill during the couple of days lawmakers had to consider it before voting on it.
Since then and especially after Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law in June, superintendents have railed against several provisions of HB 7069 and their detrimental impacts on district operations.
Consistently of primary concern to Miami-Dade has been a provision that forces districts to share with privately managed charter schools a portion of local tax dollars earmarked for school construction and maintenance projects. The mandate means $23.2 million in new funding to Miami-Dade’s charter schools in 2018 alone — dollars that will have to be cut from a state-required five-year district plan that’s based on facility needs of traditional public schools.
The documents show outside counsel for the district questioned the constitutionality of that provision at least as early as April, before the provision was lumped into HB 7069 with dozens of other reforms.
Subsequent research by two other legal firms raised more concerns about other aspects of the 274-page law, such as its new “Schools of Hope” program — which the attorneys argue circumvents the power of elected school boards to oversee public schools and sets up a “separate and competitive school system” for specialized charter operators in violation of the Constitution.
Some district superintendents and school board members around the state have voiced concerns about retribution by the Legislature if they sue, and at least one conservative Republican lawmaker is already proposing a consequence against his local school district.
Jacksonville Rep. Jason Fischer, a former Duval school board member, on Monday asked for a legislative audit of Duval Schools’ finances, in part, because it was “considering frivolous lawsuits against the state.”
However, Sen. Debbie Mayfield, a Vero Beach Republican and chairwoman of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, told The Florida Times-Union that auditing out of retaliation “would not be the proper use of the auditor general’s time.”