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Miami schools move toward joining lawsuit against state education law

Miami schools move toward joining lawsuit against state education law
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The Miami-Dade School Board is one step closer to joining a growing number of school districts across Florida in challenging the constitutionality of a controversial new education law.

Board members on Wednesday directed their attorney to draft a plan that they can vote on at their next meeting Aug. 9 as to how exactly the district might join the effort. Five districts — including Broward County schools — have committed to suing so far, and at least 14 others, like Miami-Dade, are at varying stages of considering such action.

Miami-Dade’s participation in such a lawsuit — which has yet to be filed — would not be unexpected.

The district has been among the most vocal against House Bill 7069 since it was hurriedly passed during the final days of the 2017 legislative session. District officials have already spent $9,900 on research into the constitutionality of the law’s numerous provisions in preparation for possible legal action.

This is not an attempt to second guess the Legislature but instead to ensure those policy decisions do not violate constitutional constraints over legislative power.

Anthony Carriuolo, an outside attorney for Miami-Dade public schools

“The negative provisions are harsh, they are severe, and they promise to undermine not only the economic viability of our school system, but the long-term stability of public education in our community and across the state,” said Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho during a workshop held Wednesday afternoon to discuss the district’s options.

District officials said a lawsuit would center on several provisions of HB 7069 that school board members believe undermine their constitutional authority over local education decisions. The bill was signed into law in June, and most of its changes went into effect July 1.

The targeted provisions include one that forces school districts to share with charter schools local tax dollars earmarked for school construction and maintenance, and others that limit the board’s authority over charter schools.

The board is also considering challenging a provision that restricts how school districts can spend federal dollars awarded to schools that serve poor and mostly minority students.

The lawsuit would not target aspects of the bill that the school district agrees with, such as daily recess for most elementary school students and reforms to address standardized testing.

School Board attorney Walter Harvey told the board that it’s “very clear” the problematic provisions of the law violate the state Constitution. An outside lawyer hired by the district also presented board members with constitutional arguments that could be used in court.

“This is not an attempt to second-guess the Legislature but instead to ensure those policy decisions do not violate constitutional constraints over legislative power,” said Anthony Carriuolo, a lawyer with Berger Singerman, one of three law firms hired by Miami-Dade schools to research the constitutionality of HB 7069.

But leaders of the Republican-led Legislature haven’t taken kindly to districts’ talks of suing. When the Broward school district was the first to vote to sue earlier this month, House Speaker Richard Corcoran — a Land O’Lakes Republican for whom HB 7069 was a session priority — said legal action by the district would be “clueless” and “arguably heartless.”

Although most of Miami-Dade’s school board members appeared in favor of pursuing legal action, several balked at the price tag — an estimated $100,000 to $300,000 split among all districts in the lawsuit, according to Carriuolo.

The legal costs would likely be shared by other school districts that have voted to join the suit and divvied up based on district size, school officials said.

The five districts that have voted to sue — Broward, St. Lucie, Lee, Volusia and Bay counties — have committed $95,000 among them so far.

Carvalho told the board that Miami-Dade’s legal costs would not come out of taxpayer dollars earmarked for classrooms. Instead, he said, the money could be taken from interest earned on a settlement the district won in a previous suit against oil giant BP.

As for the timing of the suit, Carriuolo said the district could ask the court for an injunction to keep the district from having to share tax revenue with charter schools while the lawsuit is underway. That portion of the new law goes into effect in February.

Statewide, many school districts are taking a cautious approach about whether to sue, with some fearing retaliation from the Legislature. One Jacksonville lawmaker is already requesting a state audit against Duval Schools as a consequence for its considering the lawsuit. (The Legislature has a history of such retribution. In 2016, lawmakers targeted the Florida School Boards Association through a new state law, after the group participated in a suit against the Legislature.)

Nonetheless, beyond the five districts that have committed, more than a dozen districts — serving almost half of the state’s 2.8 million public school children — have either expressed outright interest in challenging HB 7069 or are talking about doing so.

A handful of counties, like Miami-Dade, could vote on final approval to sue next month, while some others will just be starting their discussions on the issue.

Among the 10 largest school districts, at least one — Hillsborough — hasn’t, at a minimum, made plans to discuss joining the lawsuit yet. The status of Brevard County schools is unknown; the district did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

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