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No Lawsuit Against the State Yet, But Flagler School Board Warms Up to Actionable Anger

| June 7, 2011

Ronald Meyer, right, an attorney, has been challenging imbalances in the state's educational system for years. He was invited to address the board by Colleen Conklin, left. Trevor Tucker is at center. (FlaglerLive)

Ronald Meyer, right, an attorney, has been challenging imbalances in the state's educational system for years. He was invited to address the board by Colleen Conklin, left. Trevor Tucker is at center. (FlaglerLive)

There is room and reason for a lawsuit against the state over education funding, particularly if it can be narrowed to challenge the state’s imposition of unfunded mandates—legal requirements on local school districts such as smaller class sizes that the state is not adequately paying for, for example. But there’s not yet much clarity about how to craft that lawsuit, who should crafting it, and what legal strategy it would entail. That’s the message from Ronald Meyer to the Flagler County School Board.

Meyer is Florida’s leading attorney challenging shortcomings in Florida’s education funding. School Board member Colleen Conklin invited him to address the local board Tuesday after she proposed last April, and again in mid-May, that the board explore suing the state over the Legislature’s failure to adequately fund the school system.

The board did not agree to sue. Not yet. It agreed to keep talking about possibly suing, particularly if there may be ways to recoup money that the board thinks it’s spending to make up for the state shortchanging it. As a start, the board will direct its finance department to tally up what gap there is between costs imposed by the state that the local district has had to pick up. Conklin, who chairs the six-county Northeast Florida School Boards Coalition, will brief that panel at a meeting in Tampa on Thursday (during the Florida School Board Association’s summer conference), in hopes of building momentum for more conversations and public awareness about potential action.

“It’s courageous to have the conversation, and I know that it makes Janet a little uncomfortable to think that Flagler County would be the one to have this conversation and kind of step out there,” Conklin said, referring to Janet Valentine, the school superintendent. After proposing to sue the state in April, Conklin was fired from her job at the Flagler Beach-based Florida Endowment Foundation for Florida’s Graduates, which gets much of its funding from state grants. “I know all about being afraid to have that conversation. But I do think it’s a conversation that needs to continue to happen because as you can see from the presentation, there’s more questions than there are answers.”

Public awareness may be key. When Conklin first talked about inviting Meyer to Flagler, the board thought there may be other politicians, including school board members from neighboring counties, who’d be interested in being part of the discussion–or at least to hear it. The board chambers were empty, however: aside from the board and the superintendent, there were just four school district employees, four spectators and three reporters in the room.

The board’s lack of clarity on an immediate strategy, beyond its conviction that the state education system is in crisis, reflects the difficulties of bringing legal action against the state when so much is stacked against school districts—including the separation of powers doctrine that makes courts very reluctant to tell the Legislature what to spend and how to spend it, even when the state Constitution makes education a priority. Meyer gave the board a brief overview of the challenge: one lawsuit brought by parents in Palm Beach County over the state’s inadequate funding was thrown out when  court ruled that absent a systemic failure across the state, the adequate funding clause of the constitution can’t be the legal basis for a suit over failures in one school district, even if those failures exist.

A year ago, another group of parents filed a lawsuit against the state Board of Education alleging a statewide failure to meet the adequacy standard. “The case hasn’t moved very much,” Meyer said, though in October, a judge denied a motion to dismiss the case. It’s filed in Leon County Circuit Court, and may provide some indication about the viability of such suits.

When board member John Fischer asked Meyer point blank if he had any conviction that some legal action might be warranted, Meyer replied: “I have the conviction that it’s worth looking further into,” though he doesn’t have a draft lawsuit, or any probabilities of the “winnability” of such a lawsuit. “I’m not there yet,” he said. “I have the conviction of putting some more time into it.” And he commended the Flagler County School Board for debating legal or other actions to hold the state accountable. “The public does need to appreciate that the public schools are under attack,” Meyer said, responding to School Board Chairwoman Sue Dickinson’s other kind of conviction: that the Legislature is intending to demolish the public school system as it is now known, and that court action may not do much to stop it. (Dickinson was explicitly restating what her predecessor, the now-retired Evie Shellenberger, had often said in her latter years on the board.)

School Board member Andy Dance wants more analysis: how much money the state is shortchanging districts, what, in fact, amounts to “adequate” funding, and whether legislators can be compelled to arrive at just such definitions. He distributed a draft bill by a legislator who wants the definition attached to hard numbers, though a similar bill failed previously. Dance, who was somewhat skeptical of Conklin’s idea when she first spoke of it—he’s worried about costs—was more willing Tuesday to keep the conversation going. School Board member Trevor Tucker, on the other hand, had only one concern: the cost of any such action, legal or otherwise.

Meyer said a broad, general lawsuit on the adequacy clause of the constitution would run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, which is one reason he was not recommending it. But there are strategic reasons he’s not recommending it, too: a more targeted lawsuit—if it came to that—based on specific amounts that the state was compelled to send local school districts would be a more realistic approach, and a much less costly one if a lawyer assumed it on contingency. Even that discussion, however, was many steps too far for Meyer or the board.

Tuesday’s meeting ended up redrawing Conklin’s parameters—from a discussion about a possible lawsuit to future discussions about building a case for local school boards, starting with Flagler’s district, to stop the state’s chronic short-changing of specific statutory and constitutional mandates.

“I’m of the view that when the Constitution requires something of anyone,” Meyer said, “whether it be the state, you, a school board member, whatever, and you don’t do what’s constitutionally required, that requirement is meaningless if there’s not some sort of enforcement mechanism. Goodness knows they enforce it on you, they threaten you with fines, and kinds of [consequences], and yet they got off the hook,” meaning the state.

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17 Responses for “No Lawsuit Against the State Yet, But Flagler School Board Warms Up to Actionable Anger”

  1. lawabidingcitizen says:

    They better ask voters before they spend our money on frivolous lawsuits.

  2. Liana G says:

    Maybe a lawsuit by the state against individual/collective school districts is more in order given the sorry job their doing educating our kids with hard earned tax payer dollars.

  3. Charles Ericksen, Jr says:

    I am a firm believer in “doing one’s homework” before you hand a lesson into the teacher, and “studying prior” to taking a test, so we seem to be in order with common sense. Keep getting information necessary to make a good final decision…The question I raise, Is, IF the schools want to challenge the statutory and constitutinal mandates handed down to them by the State, why doesn’t the State challenge those mandates from the Federal Government, that account for 60% of the State’s Budget?

  4. Mike says:

    …and trust me, Rick Scott knows this…he knows there will be a major gridlock in progress towards a lawsuit (besides, who would know better than him?) so he will continue cutting and slashing from the education budget. Why? Because he can.

  5. palmcoaster says:

    Is a tough issue because witch hunting and revenge from the one’s at the helm now in Tallahassee will be utilized and already was, regarding Mrs.Conklin firing. Rick Scott’s palm prints can be seeing all over it!
    The man is vindictive and he has the nerve to start calling us all registered Republicans in this county, gathering support for his new undermining bills. Good try! This may be the motive for the public and or other school districts representatives, absence from this meeting. Fear of reprisal….welcome to our new “USAR” Democracy and repeal of Freedom of Speech.
    To Mr. Erickson I will remind him that Rick Scott refuse any additional funding from the current administration,….reason? Could be he does not like, for some prejudice our current President, elected by the people.

  6. Bill McGuire says:

    The problem is how to get the state government out of the school administration business. I have no doubt that our school board and its employees coud do a fine job of providing the education our children need if they were not required to do so many things that cost money and provide few, if any, results. Much of the school budget is comprised of things “mandated” by the state which, left to their own devices, the local school board could do better. If the citizens of Flagler county knew of the budgetary items required by the state and could see how the administration is shackled in their ability to exercise fiscal responsibility it would curl their hair.

  7. Jim Guines says:

    In some ways this board is trying to show some leadership. I thank Mrs. Conklin for taking the lead in trying to at least fight back. There are sixty-seven boards around the state and if just half of them got some back bone up thay could at least back some of the stuff they are getting from the state off of the kids and the teachers in their districts. Flagler’s board has been receiving Master Board Training for many years, at least they are trying to act like a mater board. I can’t say much for the rest of them.

  8. Thinkforyourself says:

    This is a great start!! Kudos to the Flagler Board for having the guts to make a stand and continue to do their homework on the issue. Other districts should show the same leadership! Way to go – I don’t see this as wasting tax dollars but trying to recoup and protect my local property tax dollars.

  9. Gator says:

    They need to do due diligence before they start this LONG, EXPENSIVE battle and not to loose sight of the matters on hand.

  10. Liz McLaughlin says:

    Charles, the class size mandate comes from Florida voters and therefore became a state of Florida mandate that the Florida government is supposed to fund (not the federal). I am not aware of a Federal mandate for class size.

  11. Liana G says:


    “Much of the school budget is comprised of things “mandated” by the state” Actually 80% of district budget goes to salaries.

    Why does FPC has 5 Asst Principal with only 2300 students, Rymfire / 3 with only 1300 students, yet ITMS / 1 with 900 students, and BTES / 2 with 1600 students. I can go on but this should suffice.

  12. palmcoaster says:

    I believe Mr. McGuire because many at times read, that this and that issue taken up by passage of the school board, is a state mandate. One of those is the capital improvements fund aka build schools is mandated and funds assigned by Fl state, not the school board. Would be nice that Mr. McGuire could enlighten us more to this regard as unfortunately many of us at times, we speak out of ignorance they keep us in these issues. Another Fl mandate is school board member salaries and increases and totally justified in our current environment. Many of us moved here form other states and are unaware of how shockingly different the system is here. Is not only how the heck we can keep this grass green, make pets out of the bugs but also how the laws of these land differed from what we knew.

  13. Liz McLaughlin says:

    palmcoaster: Very good! “make pets out of the bugs”, hahah. I’m with you partner. I agree with your thoughts on how this state is run. Tallahassee seems crazy compared to the rest of the country; they seem to do whatever they want. When the people of the state vote something in they want, the state just puts it back on the ballot again until they get the answer they want or they use such convoluted wording that the average person has no idea what they are voting for or against. Biggest example – the lottery was approved because ALL the money was supposed to go to EDUCATION – not some but ALL. The legislature does what they want with it.

    Wasn’t sure how to read your view in the first part though. The things you mention are Florida mandates and not mandated by the Federal government. For example, the board salaries are Florida mandated – in New York (and most other states) the elected school boards are voluntary and considered an honor to serve on.

  14. palmcoaster says:

    Liz, looks like you understood me fine. Sometimes I try to look at the funny side of things to better sustain my patience.

  15. Liana G says:

    @ Liz McLaughlin

    You said “the board salaries are Florida mandated ” but I believe the $ amount board members receive is not. I recall Dr Guines mentioning in a previous post that during his time on the board he always voted against salary increases for board members even though others voted in favor; so the choice is theirs and they sure seem to exercise that choice in their favor given their hefty salaries. The other states have this one right, servging on a school board should be voluntary and indeed an honor and a priviledge, and with term limits too.

  16. Karen Moore says:

    Can someone please answer me why Palm Coast is paying 5 school broad member 40,000,00 a year plus expenses. Lets cut some of these jobs. Most of all of these 5 school broad members have full time job and are making 40,000.00 for part time work.. I have checked and did a lot of research and there are very few cities that pay for school broad members.

    • Flaglerlive says:

      Karen, school board members in Flagler paid $30,331 a year. The salary is set by state law. A bill that would have lowered salaries to modest stipends failed in the last session. Details here and here.

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