Board withdraws from HB 7069 lawsuit

Wesley LeBlanc
Posted 2/7/18

FLEMING ISLAND – In a contentious 3-2 vote, the Clay County School Board voted Feb. 1 to pull out of a multi-school district lawsuit against the state for the passage of House Bill 7069 on grounds …

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Board withdraws from HB 7069 lawsuit

Posted

FLEMING ISLAND – In a contentious 3-2 vote, the Clay County School Board voted Feb. 1 to pull out of a multi-school district lawsuit against the state for the passage of House Bill 7069 on grounds the bill is unconstitutional. The measure was placed on the agenda after board member Betsy Condon asked last month the issue be re-addressed for fear of losing state funding.

“This is atrocious that we would even consider dropping out of this lawsuit,” board member Janice Kerekes said. “Mrs. Condon, maybe it wasn’t intended the way you said it last month, but it certainly did sound like a bribe or a blackmail or something going on between Senator [Rob] Bradley and yourself.

“I don’t see the value in dropping out of the lawsuit and not fighting for public education, for our teachers and our children,” Kerekes continued. “I, for one, will not vote to drop out of this lawsuit.”

Last September, the board became the 15th Florida school district to join a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of House Bill 7069 after a vote that passed 3-2, with Condon and Ashley Gilhousen voting no. School Board Attorney David D’Agata said last August that the bill affected at least 70 different sections of the Florida education code. Legally, based on the Florida Constitution, opponents contend, House Bill 7069 should have been broken into 70 different bills.

Beyond the constitutionality issue, the bill calls into question a number of facets educators, parents, school district leaders and the school board believe are faulty. The bill forces local school districts to share local property tax dollars with charter schools in their districts. It also creates a “Schools of Hope” program, which legal experts say essentially creates an unlawful second Florida school system.

At the same time, there are sections of HB 7069 that seemingly benefit teachers, however. House Bill 7069 would make it easier for teachers to qualify for the “Best and Brightest” bonus program, which last year, 7,118 teachers qualified for earning a bonus of $6,816. It would also make room for additional bonuses for teachers who qualify as “highly effective” or “effective.”

Orange Park High teacher Jenifer Burghart doesn’t even see this bonus as a bonus.

“Pay is now tied to performance,” Burghart said. “So $7,200, which I can’t even count as a bonus – it has to be counted as part of my salary in order to make ends meet – is now just a bonus and not part of the salary base pay.”

Ten Clay County residents, ranging from concerned parents to disappointed teachers, stepped up to the podium to voice their opinions. All 10 of them were unhappy the board was considering rescinding their vote on the joining the lawsuit.

Orange Park High economics teacher Laura Mayberry likened the state to thieves if this bill continues to stand.

“If you’re going to back out of this lawsuit, are you going to be willing to come to my classroom and tell my students that, ‘I wanted to do what’s right but it was just too hard,’” Mayberry said. “The state has been taking from us and taking from us – public money that is rightfully ours.

“It’s like having a thief come to your house and steal everything, and then have the nerve to come back and say, ‘Well, I’ll give you 5 percent back but only if you don’t call the cops,’” Mayberry continued. “I don’t want 5 percent back. I want it all and we want it all and our students want it all and they deserve it all.”

After over an hour of heated discussion, each school board member spoke on the issue.

Condon stated that no backroom deals were made in her decision to ask the board to rescind their vote. At a previous school board meeting held in January, Condon asked that the board consider dropping out of the lawsuit in an effort to receive more money from Senator Bradley, who is now chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Condon reasoned that if the board is suing the state legislature, the chances of receiving any money from Bradley will be greatly decreased. She also said that for her, rescinding the vote is about looking forward and not backward, searching for additional resources for the district, and that at the end of the day, it’s about the students and teachers in the classroom. Gilhousen reaffirmed her reasonings from a previous September meeting, saying that for her, this is a financial decision for the district.

Board member Mary Bolla acknowledged that she was the one who originally suggested that they join this lawsuit and how it was an incredibly personal decision for her as she was, and is, still a teacher and still holds a Florida teaching certificate. She called HB 7069 ‘horrible’ but with hidden plusses. One plus, she said, was paper tests will be administered next year for elementary students and the Algebra 2End of Course exam will be dropped.

“This is an awkward position to be in because now I’m sitting up here and I was one of the ones sitting in the audience not so long ago,” Bolla said. “Now I’m sitting on the hot seat, and you all made me feel this way and I want to say ‘thanks.’”

“No matter what my decision is, the threat is real and I understand that,” Bolla continued. “Whether we are a part of this lawsuit or not, this lawsuit will go on. I’m not certain what more I can say than it is a bad bill and I’m incredibly torn by this.”

Board Chairman Carol Studdard finished the board discussion saying she’s not ‘a quitter.’

“This was wrong in September and it is wrong now so I’m going to stick to my guns,” Studdard said to applause from the audience. “I won’t quit on things when I know that in my heart of hearts, that it is wrong.”

After closing comment time, the board voted 3-2 to pull out of the lawsuit with Kerekes and Studdard voting no. Bolla flipped her pervious vote and sided with Condon and Gilhousen and voted to rescind the board’s participation in the vote.

This decision was met with surprise from not only the board, but the audience as well. Condon and Gilhousen previously voted no to join the lawsuit so them voting to rescind came as no surprise. The vote was met with a sigh of disappointment from the audience, with one man from the audience even shouting “shame” at the board. The room quickly cleared as the board decided to take a break.

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