Pasco school employees union sues to keep classrooms closed

Tampa Bay Times | by Jeffrey S. Solochek | August 12, 2020

The schools can’t be “safe” or “secure,” and that’s a violation of the state Constitution, the group argues.

Arguing that classrooms cannot be reopened safely for in-person learning, Pasco County’s school employees union has asked a judge to stop it from happening.

To do otherwise would violate the public’s right to a safe and secure education, which is mandated in the state Constitution, lawyers for the United School Employees of Pasco contended in a complaint seeking an order barring the reopening of campuses.

“The Florida Constitution mandates ‘[a]dequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools,” attorney Mark Herdman wrote. “The defendants’ unconstitutional handling of their duties has infringed upon this mandate and requires the courts to issue necessary and appropriate relief.”

How did the district superintendent and School Board fail to meet this requirement? By allowing families to send their children to campuses for in-person classes, the so-called “bricks and mortar” option. The state Department of Education has insisted Pasco include that option, despite its inability to guarantee the health and welfare of students and staff, USEP president Don Peace suggested.

“The public schools of Pasco County are and will continue to be unsafe and unsecure because the schools cannot prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Herdman wrote, contending it is “impossible” for the county schools to follow the social distancing and related guidelines of the Re-Open Florida Task Force.

The county had 41 new reported cases on Wednesday, along with five added deaths and 21 hospitalizations.

The United School Employees of Pasco seeks an injunction to keep the school district from reopening classrooms to start the 2020-21 academic year. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]

The union’s lawsuit seeks relief for Pasco County only. It is not connected to a similar action filed by the Florida Education Association currently in Leon County court, where a scheduling hearing is set for Thursday morning.

“We are not in concert with the FEA lawsuit,” Peace said. “We are seeking to do this independently … to get a quicker result.”

He said he was hopeful that the local circuit court could move faster with the complaint tightly focused on a single county’s specific concerns.

Peace had threatened legal action two weeks ago, after his executive board authorized the move. But the union didn’t finalize its action until after watching events unfold in Hillsborough County, directly to the south.

Hillsborough district officials received expert medical advice not to reopen classrooms and acted accordingly, he noted, only to be shot down by Department of Education officials insistent that schools offer an in-person learning option for families that need or want it. He questioned the department’s authority to threaten funding streams, as has happened in Hillsborough, and said the USEP wanted to prevent a similar scenario in Pasco.

Since the school district hadn’t challenged the state, Peace said, the union decided to step in.

“Safety and common sense should prevail,” he said. “We are asking to get around the emergency order so we don’t have to go through all the things that Hillsborough is going through.”

Peace acknowledged that nearly two-thirds of Pasco families have signed up for in-person classes, and many teachers have said they would willingly return to the schools, too.

“I get that,” he said. “What we’re saying is, and the hardest part about all this decision-making is, no matter where you turn, you get mixed recommendations. … We are trying to err on the side of caution and allow time for the positive test case numbers to fall in Pasco.”

Dennis Alfonso, the School Board’s lawyer, said he had not seen the complaint and could not comment.

District employees are scheduled to return to schools on Aug. 17, with students arriving a week later.

Photo: United School Employees of Pasco president Don Peace announces his group’s lawsuit seeking to keep county public schools closed when classes resume Aug. 24. [JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times]

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