(News-Press) History may come with a price.
The Lee school board made a sweeping decision Wednesday to halt all state-mandated tests, putting teachers, students and administrators in "uncharted territory," said Superintendent Nancy Graham.
Unprecedented in the state, the board's decision has many wondering if Lee County will be subject to grave punishments for its defiance.
The district could also lose millions of dollars in funding. Lee received $280 million in state dollars last year, not including federal dollars.
Elaine Quisenberry, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, said it is up to Florida to decide if Lee will face penalties. She said federal funding will not be directly impacted because the DOE gives education dollars to the state itself, not specific districts.
Though the Florida Department of Education declined to comment on the matter, it did release a laundry list of potential ramifications this week.
Florida statutes stipulate that all students must take the state-wide, standardized exams. Districts found to be non-compliant could lose state and federal funding, be subjected to legislative action and possibly even lose its accreditation. Teacher pay could be slashed, and students could not receive a standard high school diploma if they did not take the ACT or SAT.
Gov. Rick Scott said he's against federal overreach and sympathizes with Lee County parents, but did not know what penalties — if any — will come of the vote.
"We need to get more information, but Lee County's actions could have serious negative consequences that I am sure they did not intend," he told the News-Press.
Superintendent Nancy Graham said the board's decision Wednesday evening was the first time she has ever been surprised by the board's actions.
She already had two phone conversations with Pamela Stewart, state education commissioner, by Thursday afternoon and said she will need the education department's help in navigating the new territory.
Graham strongly opposed opting out, telling the board Wednesday night it would undoubtedly hurt children. School board attorney Keith Martin detailed the legal consequences.
Graham plans to bring recommendations to the board to clarify their decision and provide some exceptions to the decision, like the Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener.
"What else could I have shared with the board about the bigness of this?" Graham said. "What else could I have said to make them go in a different direction?"
She said she has fielded frantic phone calls and even had one employee in tears. She said high-school seniors, in particular, are terrified.
She said she believed the public's emotions at the board meeting swayed the board and suspected politics were at play.
"(The public) has no comprehension of the immediate impact of this," she said. "If it doesn't become an election issue, I'll be very surprised."
Dissenting board member Cathleen Morgan said she was "as flabbergasted as everyone" when the board passed the vote. She and board member Jeanne Dozier implored their colleagues to table the vote until a "Plan B" could be created.
"I'm just hoping that when the people who voted to opt out recognize the impact on our district, they will reconsider what they have done," Morgan said.
But Fischer and Armstrong, who voted in favor of the all-encompassing motion do not regret their decisions. Chairman Tom Scott, who also voted in support of the motion, did not return multiple phone calls.
Board member Mary Fischer, who was initially undecided on the issue, said she served as the tie-breaker because she felt it was the right thing to do.
"Morally and ethically, I stand by my decision," Fischer said. "Cognitively, I know it means it's going to mean a lot of work. And we do need a plan. But we could not continue doing what we did to kids because it's not right."
"Those families' stories (at Wednesday's meeting) may have been very dramatic for people, but I've been hearing them for years as a counselor."
Board member Don Armstrong, who is up for reelection this November, said he doesn't believe the doomsday scenarios outlined by Graham or the state.
"Do you really think the state would come down and tell these kids they can't graduate?" he asked.
Fischer said she was confident Graham could navigate the uncharted waters.
"Sometimes the statutes are very ambiguous and they said the governor 'could' do that," Fischer said. "But this is an election year, so it's time for us to come up with a plan that can be accepted by the board of education. I know that this is a push come to shove, but I think it's all going to be better for our kids in the end."
Florida Statutes stipulate that the Superintendent acts at the will of school board members. Section four of the Florida Constitution specifies that the "school board shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district."
Armstrong challenged the Governor to further address the board's decision.
"Rick Scott, come down here and talk to us face to face," he said. "I've emailed you and you won't answer. Have I got your attention yet?"
The district received $280 million in state dollars last school year, excluding federal dollars.
Board members who voted in favor of the all-encompassing motion do not regret their decisions.
The State Board of Education can take the following actions in any circumstances where a district is non-compliant:
Withhold the transfer of state funds, discretionary grant funds, or discretionary lottery funds until the district complies (section 1008.32, F.S.),
Declare the district ineligible for competitive grants (section 1008.32, F.S.),
Require reporting until the district complies (section 1008.32, F.S.), and
Report to the Legislature that the district is unwilling to comply with the law and recommend action to be taken by the legislature (section 1008.32, F.S.).
Suspend school board members and elected superintendents. The Senate can remove also remove them from power.
Their GPAs would suffer, as testing makes up 30 percent of their course grades
Students in failing schools would not be eligible for the Opportunity Scholarship Program
Students would not have the scores necessary to be admitted to accelerated courses
Seniors would have to pay for and take the ACT or SAT to graduate.
Reporters Ashley A Smith and Jason Cook contributed to this report.