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Appeals Court Lets Lawsuit Over School Funding Proceed, Florida Supreme Court Next

| November 23, 2011

The appearance of adequacy may be deceptive. (Karen Blumberg)

A divided appeals court on Wednesday ruled against the state’s effort to stop a lawsuit over school funding.

The case now may head to the Florida Supreme Court, which could then decide whether a trial court can hear the case. In an 8-7 opinion, the First District Court of Appeals said trial courts do have the ability to decide whether the state has violated a constitutional provision guaranteeing a high-quality public school system.

The state had argued that the lawsuit was too political and broad for a trial court to decide, and it was more appropriate for the Legislature to determine issues of funding and education policies. The complaint alleges that “Florida’s public schools are not safe and secure, that graduation rates are too low, that student promotion and retention policies are ineffective, that results of achievement tests reveal various inadequacies, and much more,” according to Wednesday’s opinion.

The lawsuit, Haridopolos v. Citizens for Strong Schools (see the full text of the opinion below), was filed two years ago in Leon County. Two education non-profit groups and several parents of public school students said the Legislature and state failed to uphold their constitutional obligation to properly fund and operate high-quality and safe schools.

Neil Chonin, the litigation director for Gainesville-based Southern Legal Counsel, which represents the non-profits and parents, said the case is about more than adequate school funding, focusing on graduation and retention rates, test scores, teacher salaries and safety as well as whether schools are properly funded.

“It’s not just a funding question, that’s just part of the puzzle,” Chonin said.

But the ensuing legal battle has focused not on the merits of that question, but on whether courts should be able to hear the case at all. The state filed a “writ of prohibition” designed to prevent the trial courts from considering the case because of its broad focus on school funding and other policies set by the Legislature.

The eight justices in the majority said though they disagree with the state, “we do so with utmost respect for a coequal branch of government; and do so even though we are well aware that the constitutional duty to ensure that adequate provision is made for public education is the Legislature’s in the first instance.”

Jon Mills, an attorney who is also representing Citizens for Strong Schools, said it is likely the Florida Supreme Court will hear the case, given that the appeals court certified it as a “question of great public importance,” a key step in getting the high court to take a case. Mills said it is the first time the Florida Supreme Court would weigh in on the new provision regarding education in the Florida Constitution since it was included in 1998, and could have widespread implications for future lawsuits over the quality of schools requirement.

“This is potentially one of the highest-impact cases you can have,” Mills said.

Jennifer Meale, a spokeswoman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, said “we are reviewing the opinion and will discuss it with our clients.” It could be heard by the Supreme Court even if the state doesn’t appeal. Listed as defendants in the lawsuit are current Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, former Education Commissioner Eric Smith, and the State Board of Education.

“Certainly,” Justice Clayton Roberts wrote in his dissent, “the purpose of the amendment was to send a signal to the policymakers of Florida stressing the importance of education. However, even though the additional language clearly expresses an emphasis on education, it does not provide any more of a justiciable standard than the ‘adequate provision’ command did in Coalition. The terms ‘efficient, safe, secure, and high quality’ do not lend themselves to a ‘yes or no’ evaluation. The terms are adjectives of degree, meaning that even an unlimited amount of resources and ideal policies and administration could not provide a guarantee of perfect efficiency, safety, security or quality. The Constitution does not provide guidance to courts in determining how efficient, safe, secure or high quality the school system is required to be.”

Even though the legal squabbling is focusing on the court’s ability to hear the case, Chonin said the hope is that eventually the Legislature, through court action, will be required to “comply with the constitution.”

“But that remedy stage is down the road,” Chonin said.

–Lilly Rockwell, News Service of Florida

Haridopolos v. Citizens for Strong Schools, Florida lawsuit, 1st District Court of Appeals opinion, Nov. 23, 2011

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7 Responses for “Appeals Court Lets Lawsuit Over School Funding Proceed, Florida Supreme Court Next”

  1. Jim Guines says:

    What a contrast, here our school board is attempting to get a uniform policy and would not even support the idea put forward by Colleen Cocklin to join the effort to Stop the governor with a law suit from cutting the school budget. This action by a smarter school board may kick some sense in our board and get them fighting some real issues like badly needed school funds. Better late than never, you can’t just lay back and take it. You got to fight back like they are doing in other states.

  2. palmcoaster says:

    I think that our school board should join this lawsuit given the current Governor’s education budget cuts.

  3. Lin says:

    Yes, let’s have more money taken out my left pants pocket for the State to collect and distribute as it sees fit in addition to the money taken out of my right pants pocket through our property taxes and the money to pursue and defend this lawsuit taken out of my shirt pocket — money the taxpayer doesn’t have. Sounds like a great idea — we all pay regardless. Sue ourselves. And our kids will lose in the end — all that money wasted by government.

  4. Lucine says:

    And now that we have heard some whining, time for the truth. In comparison to most other states, we pay close to nothing in property taxes (which have gone down for most Flagler county citizens 4 years straight) and pennies on the dollar toward public education. If your pants pockets are empty, try moving to another state. There, you will not even be able to afford pants.

  5. Lin says:

    No matter who wins the lawsuit, the taxpayer still has to pay — and letting the state control the distribution of taxes for education isn’t a good answer considering what is our schools. And our School Board here in Flagler decided to reduce the school day in spite of the needs of the students for MORE time in the classroom and raises were given in spite of the money crunch. Check out the scores for Flagler and Florida and the US. Our kids are in need. If the local School Boards win, the State will need to get more revenue (taxes) from us to send to the school districts. Again, they will raise our State taxes to send back to the districts (and we can only hope that Flagler will get their fair share) just like the Federal govt collects mucho federal taxes in unfair tax codes that don’t get paid back to the people that will most benefit from them. It is always the kids that suffer. More and more money is spent on education, but the problems seems to be multiplying.

    Taxes have gone down in Flagler — because the property values have plummeted, unemployment is ridiculously high, inflation in food, insurance and other necessities is high — times are really tough for alot of people. Suing ourselves will not help in my opinion — just cost time & money in the long run.

  6. Liana G says:

    Dr Guines, call me a naïve optimist but I believe the good governor and his Education Secretary Robinson see great potential for the children of Flagler County in their exemplary adult citizens. And so do I! Here is what I see. I see you – Dr Guines, Mr. & Mrs. Tristam, Rabbi Shapiro, Mr. Ryan, and several other well meaning individuals collaborating to open a fine arts magnet school that will be a welcome benefit to the children of this community. And you needn’t stop there; math, science, and technology magnets are also needed. Think about it.

    Imagine School will again attract another hundred children or so next school year, and other charters will also pick up a few more. If the school district is forced to condense for funding and budget reasons, you may be able to lease one of their existing facilities and start up with minimal effort.

    Also, in MA, MD, and TX several dedicated and well intentioned school teachers have opened their own schools with grants from the Dept of Education. The teachers are happy, the parents are happy, and the children are excelling in their new environments. Flagler do have their share of those kinds of teachers too, and the parents know who they are. What fantastic opportunities for the left behind children of Flagler!

  7. palmcoaster says:

    What about Mayor Netts making it fair by visiting our other public schools as well, that are not located in Town Center…?

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