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Judge denies motion to dismiss teachers' union lawsuit against Florida

If the two sides can't come to an agreement by the end of the day Tuesday, there will be an injunction hearing next week.

LEON COUNTY, Fla. — A judge on Friday refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a Florida teachers' union challenging the legality of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran‘s mandate that districts re-open brick and mortar schools this month.

The hearing offered a preview of what is likely to be the argument brought by both sides if the case moves forward.

Lawyers for the state say Gov. Ron DeSantis and Corcoran have made difficult decisions that balance public health and a child’s right to quality education, and that distance learning would deprive 1.6 million students who’ve selected the brick and mortar option of that right.

Additionally, they argued, that disagreement is a political issue -- not a legal issue to be decided by the courts.

“In an emergency there’s additional deference. There’s deference to the executives that are having to carry the heavy weight of making these decisions under their authority in an emergency,” said David Wells, an attorney representing the state. “It must be the elected executives and representatives who make the difficult and profound decision regarding how our children are to be educated."

Lawyers for the Florida Education Association union, as well as an attorney representing parents concerned for their children’s health, told the judge those arguments should be saved for trial. This, they argued, was a motion to dismiss hearing. And that there was no reason, on its face, to question the validity of their concern that the state order puts safety at risk.

“But what we have here is an executive order that basically says you only get funding if you do it my way. We think that’s arbitrary and capricious, your honor,” FEA Attorney Ron Meyer said.

Lawyers for the teachers union specifically mentioned Hillsborough County during their presentation to the court. They cited it as an example of a district that had tried to submit a plan to delay face-to-face instruction based on input from public health experts. Instead, the state threatened to withhold funding with what Meyer called “zeal to open schools without regard for the continuing expansion of the pandemic.”

Circuit Judge Charles Dodson issued his ruling on the spot, denying the state’s motion to dismiss the case. But he made it clear no one should infer anything from that.

“I’m not, in any way, saying that the plaintiffs are going to be successful with their case,” Dodson said. “They still have the burden of proving their case.”

Dodson also ordered both parties to enter into mediation next Monday and Tuesday, hoping they can hammer out their differences without having to go to trial.

If that doesn’t work, the judge has set aside next Wednesday and Thursday to hear legal arguments as quickly as possible, knowing the clock is quickly ticking toward many re-opening dates.

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