The Duval County School Board on Monday voted 4-to-2 to join at least 10 other Florida districts in suing to block a new state education law.
The nearly 300-page law, passed as House Bill 7069, went into effect July 1. It’s known for its “Schools of Hope” provision, speeding up the closures of failing neighborhood schools and financially incentivizing charter schools to open in those areas. And the expansive law has many other provisions too, like requiring districts to share tax revenue with charters for building and maintenance projects.
Duval is planning to join Bay, Lee, Palm Beach, Volusia, Broward, Miami-Dade, Polk, Hamilton, Orange and St. Lucie counties in arguing the law is unconstitutional.
Board members Wright, Becki Couch, Lori Hershey and Warren Jones voted in favor of suing. Ashley Smith Juarez and Scott Shine voted against it, and Cheryl Grymes was absent.
The board on Monday reviewed a memorandum by city lawyers, who pointed to several reasons the law may be unconstitutional – for one, by infringing on the district's right to operate, control and supervise all public schools, as laid out in the Florida Constitution.
That’s in part because the law takes away districts’ ability to negotiate charter school contracts, instead requiring a standard state contract. Charter schools are public, but privately managed.
“As watchman we are sounding the alarm that perhaps these provisions in House Bill 7069 are not constitutional,” Board Chair Paula Wright said. “We want to test them and make certain they are constitutional and that they benefit our constituents.”
The legal analysis also says the law’s requiring districts to share local tax revenue with charters may conflict with the constitutional prohibition on using school districts’ taxing power to aid corporations or associations.
Board member Couch said her vote in favor of suing doesn’t mean she’s against charters.
“We have great charters,” she said.
But she does take issue with unelected charter school leaders spending district tax dollars.
“Who holds the unelected board accountable?” she said. “They’re making decisions on federal and state funding.”
Shine, who voted against suing, said he agrees with other board members – the law is problematic. But he thinks the suit could hurt relations with legislators.
“I think the most important thing is that we get our funding levels back up to where they were historically, and then the rest of the issues in 7069, we can work those out as time goes forward,” Shine said.
In an emailed statement, Shine said he’s concerned about retaliation from state lawmakers, who decide funding levels.
After Monday’s vote, he said, “We’re going to find out whether or not this is the right thing. I can’t say litigating will ultimately be the wrong decision, but my suspicion is that it’s in the short run going to make things more difficult.”
Other board members said the board’s exhausted talks with lawmakers, leaving no option left but to sue.
“Board members sent a bus to Tallahassee. Several board members talked directly with legislators, and it didn’t do any good,” Warren Jones said.
And Lori Hershey, who took many trips to Tallahassee, said she’s continued to speak with local lawmakers as the board’s considered litigation, and she doesn’t feel the relations are strained.
But Ashley Smith Juarez said the district should further engage constituents about the matter and possibly pass a resolution against the law before engaging in the suit.
The board also voted to cap legal costs at $25,000, unless it approves more later on. And the district is agreeing to use non-public funding, if possible, to pursue the suit.
Full expenses of the lawsuit are estimated to be about $400,000 spread among districts based on size. Duval’s cost may rise or fall depending on how many districts join the suit.