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‘Culture wars’ push up legal fees for Sarasota school district

 Dan DeLeo is the lead lawyer for the Sarasota County School District
SCREENSHOT: Sarasota Schools
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Dan DeLeo is the lead lawyer for the Sarasota County School District

Disputes over mask-wearing in schools, increasingly raucous school board meetings and a spate of new laws bolstering parental rights in education in Florida are pushing up legal fees in the Sarasota County school district.

At a school board meeting Tuesday, the board voted 3-2 to pay $136,640 in extra legal fees linked to the resurgence of COVID-19 earlier this school year, a sum that is beyond the annual cap of $819,719 for district legal costs.

That means the district’s legal fees for the 2021-22 school year could be near $1 million, in a county with more than 60 schools, some 44,000 students, and an annual budget of $1.125 billion.

Sarasota was one of 12 school districts statewide that adopted a mask mandate in the fall to prevent the spread of coronavirus, against the governor's orders.

Board chair Jane Goodwin said some of the costs were pandemic-related. Others were linked to the increasingly tense atmosphere at school board meetings, and she alluded to threats made against school board members.

“Business at this size, a billion-dollar business normally would have close to a million dollars in legal fees,” Goodwin said at the Tuesday meeting.

“And anyone today that sees the temperament of some of the people at our board meetings, and these correspondences that we receive understand why an attorney and an answer from an attorney is very, very important,” she said.

 Tuesday's school board meeting was held in North Port instead of Sarasota, and far fewer members of the public came out to speak during the comment period.
SCREENSHOT: Sarasota Schools
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Tuesday's school board meeting was held in North Port instead of Sarasota, and far fewer members of the public came out to speak during the comment period.

The extra $136,640 was described by the district lawyer Dan DeLeo as resulting from "extraordinary circumstances."

“Unfortunately, because the culture war has moved into the schools, that has become an issue when meetings have problems and are disrupted, and there are other issues that creates a legal spend,” DeLeo said at a school board workshop on May 3.

He also warned that a series of new laws in Florida regarding education could lead to even more legal fees.

For instance, the Parental Rights in Education law -- which bans classroom instruction of gender identity that is not "age-appropriate" -- authorizes parents to sue school districts for cash.

"There are in some of those bills and in future bills, we expect new private rights of action created. So, individuals can sue not just for an injunction, not just for damages, but for money damages. That will have real world impact on legal fees,” De Leo said.

Sarasota school board members Karen Rose and Bridget Ziegler voted against the extra payment in legal fees, but were in the minority.

Ziegler made a reference to the district's legal counsel being “wildly unprofessional,” while Rose raised the issue of the school district’s mask mandate as the reason for her ‘no’ vote.

“Even though this fee is directed at the (mask) mandate, and what occurred during that process, it did not even involve litigation. We weren't involved to my knowledge in any litigation, but yet the fees were excessive,” Rose said.

School board member Tom Edwards said “there are lots of extra dollars that gets spent that no one seemingly cares about, but they go after the legal because they can go after the mask policy, and I find that to be unacceptable.”

He added that “the way we order legal services is really a problem for me,” and “how we organize ourselves and spend that money can be done in a more efficient and better way. So moving forward, I'd like to see it be well under the $800,000. But I'm tired, personally, of re-litigating the mask policy over and over.”

WUSF asked other area school districts if their legal fees have also risen this school year. A Hillsborough County Schools spokeswoman said she would place a records request for that information.

Polk County Schools spokesman Jason Geary said they have "not seen a particular increase in legal fees compared to previous years."

Pinellas County "has not had an increase in legal fees during the 2021-2022 school year. No legislation-related legal expenses either. According to the legal team, it’s been an average year," said spokeswoman Isabel Mascarenas.

Pasco and Manatee County Schools did not respond before publication time.

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Kerry Sheridan is a reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media.