‘This is extortion’: Broward bows to state pressure to open schools

By Andrew Atterbury 10/01/2020 05:21 PM EDT

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Classrooms in Broward County will open their doors on Oct. 9 after the school board bowed to a deadline from Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who had threatened to withhold funding if campuses weren’t open by his deadline.

The local board, which governs one of the nation’s largest school districts, voted unanimously Thursday to bring teachers and students back to campuses next week, beginning with the youngest students, to avoid a massive budget shortfall in the heat of the coronavirus pandemic. The district originally had planned to start classroom instruction Oct. 20.

Board members lamented the decision and expressed concern about logistical challenges the district will confront to open ahead of schedule. They bashed Corcoran and Gov. Ron DeSantis, both Republicans, for forcing their hand.

“This is extortion by the Department of Education, there’s no two ways about it,” Board member Patricia Good said at the emergency meeting Thursday.

The Broward vote is the latest chapter in a saga that has pitted local school leaders in Florida against the state. As counties and schools in areas hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic made plans to start the school year with the safety of teachers and students in mind, Corcoran and DeSantis pre-empted those plans with a demand that campuses reopen to students — or risk losing state cash.

On Tuesday, the Miami-Dade school board voted to bring students back to campuses beginning Monday, with the goal of returning all schools to in-person classes by the end of next week. The voice vote came after the Department of Education threatened to withhold as much as $84 million in funding.

Broward and Miami-Dade are the only districts that have yet to open brick-and-mortar schools. Corcoran prodded both counties to bringing students back by Oct. 5 despite their plans to wait until at least Oct. 20.

At Thursday’s meeting, school officials said Corcoran had agreed to extend Broward’s deadline from Oct. 5 to Oct. 9.

Board members spoke at length about the state overstepping its boundaries and usurping control from local elected officials. The district risked losing state funding if it deployed a school reopening plan without approval from the DOE. The department, in a July emergency order, told schools that students signed up for online learning wouldn’t count toward enrollment tallies.

Broward schools stood to lose between $67 million and $317 million if they failed to meet the state‘s demand to open sooner, school officials told the board Thursday.

Broward doesn’t have the money to withstand that sort of budget hit, chief financial officer Judith Marte said. The district is in an “absolutely no-win situation,” she said, and warned that the board would have to pull $150 million from salaries to fill the funding gap, resulting in roughly 4,300 jobs lost.page1image50871872page1image50856128

Some board members had pledged to vote against the expedited reopening timeline before the state agreed to the new date of Oct. 9

“You cannot hold money over our heads and think that we’re going to do what’s not in the best interest of our families and our students,” board member Laurie Rich Levinson said. “Because you know what? You’re going to have a hell of a fight.”

Bus transportation is one of the largest issues facing Broward County and its 269,000 students as they prepare for a rapid reopening.

Nearly 104,00 students have said they intend to return to in-person classes, but more than half have not responded to a district survey. School officials are attempting to contact parents and students and are fielding waves of phone calls about in-person classes, school officials told the board.

Due to the lack of survey responses and the short turnaround time for opening, the district can’t guarantee busing will be available for everyone on the first week of in-person classes.

Additionally, more than one-fourth of the district’s instructors are seeking accommodations to work from home or take a leave of absence, according to school officials. That represents 3,269 teachers and staff. Some 12,000 employees didn’t respond to the survey.

Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, implored the district to stick with its Oct. 20 target to resume in-person classes, noting that a circuit court judge had ruled that the state lacked authority to force schools to reopen. That lawsuit, filed by the Florida Education Association, is still playing out in appeals court.

“We have to ask you to stand strong,” Fusco said.

Superintendent Robert Runcie acknowledged that the earlier reopening poses “significant challenges” for teachers and staff. But the alternative — losing millions of dollars in funding during a pandemic — is too big of a risk, he told the board.

“On principle, yes it makes sense for us to go and fight this,” Runcie said. “But sometimes you have to lose to win.”

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