Collier schools joins HB 7069 lawsuit

Lee Herald Favicon 16After initially saying no to entering a multi-party lawsuit against 2017’s HB 7069, the Collier County School Board has changed directions.

The board voted on Tuesday to join in on the suit as an “intervening member” to challenge two specific issues: the Schools of Hope charter program, and standardized charter school contracts.

“When you look at Schools of Hope, the school boards have no responsibility over that, it’s all state government,” board chair Roy Terry said. “We’ve talked numerous times here about local control, and that certainly takes local control away. The [state] Constitution says that the school boards are to operate and supervise all free public schools in the district. In my opinion this rule…is not constitutional.”

In September, the board voted against taking any action on the HB 7069 suit, which argued that the wide-ranging education bill was unconstitutional. But they left the door open to reconsider either through joining the multi-district suit, which includes Lee Schools among the approximately one dozen districts in its ranks, or go their own way. Palm Beach County filed its own separate suit in October.

Tuesday saw the board revisit the decision, and voted to join 3-2. Terry and board member Erick Carter, who voted against taking action in September, joined board member Stephanie Lucarelli in supporting the suit in the Tuesday vote.

“This is something that I said when we discussed this the first time: it’s a bad bill,” Lucarelli said. “It’s a bad bill and charter school owners and operators should be upset that all of these issues got piled into one. If Schools of Hope was its own, we would only be talking about Schools of Hope.”

It’s not yet clear what the full lawsuit will challenge, but among points of contention for the suits taking legal action have included sharing capital property tax funds with charter schools, and that the bill, made up of dozens of measures, violates state statutes on single issue bills.

As an intervening member, the district is only involved in contesting the issues they’ve chosen to take part in.

“When a party intervenes in a lawsuit they do not, for example, participate in the capital outlay discussion, they have no connection to that,” district attorney Jon Fishbane said. “I hear the statement that if you intervene you’re a part of the whole thing, well you’re really not part of the whole thing.”

Board members Erika Donalds and Kelly Lichter, who have been opponents of the suit since it was first discussed, reiterated their opposition to the suit, citing among other things the unknown cost of the lawsuit. Fishbane estimated the lawsuit could cost Collier taxpayers into the six figures. Lichter had pushed against bringing the item for a vote to get more information on joining the suit as an intervening party.

“Nobody has articulated with the board majority as to why it makes sense to potentially spend six figures on this lawsuit,” Lichter said. “I’m not comfortable with using this intervener – I’m not an attorney so I’m Googling intervener – that’s why I say we need some time to talk to other resources on this issue before we make a decision.”

Donalds argued that the money spent on the lawsuit would be better used to entice district teachers to go work in Immokalee, where the district’s lone school at risk of triggering Schools of Hope, Village Oaks Elementary, is located. Donalds also cautioned that supporting the suit could cause trouble for the district in the upcoming legislative session, where the Speaker of the Florida House, Richard Corcoran, was a champion of the bill.

“A good portion of where we can get that money is to pay for lobbying organizations, because I can tell you right now if we’re going to be part of a lawsuit all of those lobbyists are going to be wasting their time with the Legislature,” said Donalds, who unsuccessfully brought a motion to stop payment for district lobbying efforts for one year after the lawsuit vote passed. “You’re going to sue the Legislature and then send lobbyists to Tallahassee to get what we want as a school district? Yeah. We’re wasting our time.”

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