Fla. Gov. Fights Judicial Block On School Reopening Plan

By Mike LaSusa
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Law360 (August 24, 2020, 10:31 PM EDT) -- Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis wasted no time challenging a state judge's order Monday shredding the administration's move to open all schools by Aug. 31 after finding the restart plans "reduced the constitutional guarantee of a safe education to an empty promise."

Judge Charles Dodson's order blocks DeSantis and state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran from going ahead with an executive order mandating that Florida's brick-and-mortar schools open five days a week despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Judge Dodson ripped the DeSantis administration for using Executive Order 6, issued on July 6, to strong-arm school districts into reopening by threatening funding cuts. The judge said this "essentially ignored the requirement of school safety" by effectively demanding that teachers and students return to "extremely unsafe conditions."

"The order states the day-to-day decision to open or close a school rests locally with the school boards, subject to the advice of local health officials. Although that language sounds good, it is essentially meaningless," the judge said.

Less than two hours later, however, DeSantis filed notices of appeal in the two cases referenced by the order, which were consolidated before Judge Dodson for pretrial purposes. The governor's office argued that under Florida appellate rules, the plans to appeal put an automatic stay on the ruling.

The first of the challenges to DeSantis' executive order was filed July 19 by students and teachers in Orange County, and the second was filed in Miami on July 20 by the state's largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, along with several individual educators and parents.

Judge Dodson previously rejected the state's bid to dismiss the suit brought by the FEA, but urged the union and the state to hash out their differences and come to an agreement.

Corcoran, the education commissioner, called the FEA's lawsuit "frivolous" in a statement on Monday.

"We've said it all along, and we will say it one million times — we are 100% confident we will win this lawsuit," Corcoran said.

FEA President Fedrick Ingram said in a statement Monday that the group plans to continue fighting in court.

"Local communities should have the freedom to make the best decisions for reopening or keeping open local schools," Ingram said. "Safety must come before politics."

The plaintiffs in the FEA case are represented by Kendall Coffey, Josefina M. Aguila and Scott A. Hiaasen of Coffey Burlington PL, Ronald G. Meyer of Meyer Brooks Blohm & Hearn PA, Lucia Piva, Mark Richard and Kathleen M. Phillips of Phillips Richard & Rind PA and Kimberly C. Menchion of the Florida Education Association. The plaintiffs in the Orange County case are represented by Jacob V. Stuart PA and William J. Wieland II of Wieland & DeLattre PA.

The governor and state entities are represented by David M. Wells and Nathan W. Hill of Gunster.

The cases are Florida Education Association et al. v. DeSantis et al., case number 2020-CA-1450, and Monique Bellefleur v. DeSantis, case number 2020-CA-1467, in the Second Judicial Circuit Court of Florida.

--Additional reporting by Carolina Bolado. Editing by Jill Coffey.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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