LEON COUNTY, Fla. — The state's largest teachers union is getting its day in court, and the first witness it called was a Hillsborough County school board member.
Last month, The Florida Education Association (FEA) announced a lawsuit aimed to stop the state's emergency order to reopen physical school classrooms five days a week starting in August.
Attorneys with the FEA are arguing the executive order violates the Florida Constitution because they say it does not promote a "safe" and "secure" school system. They say the state is "putting arbitrary and capricious demands" on districts.
After a month of legal back-and-forth including a change of venue and an attempt by the defense to get the case dismissed, testimony began Wednesday morning with the teachers union calling on its first witness, Tamara Shamburger, a Hillsborough County school board member who has been vocal about delaying the reopening of physical schools.
The FEA attorneys asked Shamburger to detail the advice she was given by medical experts at that August 6th special meeting where the Hillsborough school board voted to start school in an online format for the first four weeks.
"We did convene a special called board meeting to meet with the seven medical experts solely to get their opinion on our reopening plan and the safety of opening our school buildings," Shamburger said to a virtual court being held via Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Shamburger then explained how the state rejected their amended plan on August 7, ultimately forcing the district to open its doors by Aug. 31 despite mediation efforts by the Hillsborough Superintendent.
Last week, Superintendent Addison Davis announced the district was at risk of losing more than $200 million if it didn't open schools by the end of the month.
RELATED: Hillsborough County Schools will start online, then begin offering in-person learning on Aug. 31
Shamburger addressed the court saying, "I was elected to represent this community. I know this community very well. I’ve lived in this community my entire life and to have Tallahassee really strangle my authority and my rights as an elected board member was extremely concerning."
Union attorneys say the state is silencing department of health directors from offering recommendations on reopening schools.
Shamburger testified, "I asked all seven experts, should our school building be reopened was my exact question. Dr. Holt refused to answer."
At the special board meeting on August 6, Dr. Douglas Holt, the director of the Hillsborough Department of Health said, "I represent the health department here. I’m providing technical assistance and advice. I do not have a position," when asked if he would recommend opening schools.
A spokesperson with the Hillsborough Department of Health sent 10 Tampa Bay this statement:
The Florida Department of Health, through the county health departments, serves as a resource to the school districts on how to open schools in the safest manner and what mitigation strategies to employ at the time and in the manner determined by the local school districts. We recognize that districts, schools and Florida families are working through challenging questions of optimizing learning and ensuring the safety and security of their students and staff. It will be critical for Florida school districts and schools to work closely with local county health departments to develop safe mitigation strategies through the re-opening process. The county health department works collaboratively with the local superintendent, school district and school board to provide county data and trends and educate on mitigation strategies to make the school environment as safe as possible. The Department will continue to collaborate with local school districts on best practices to ensure the safety of students and staff.
After Shamburger, a high school teacher from the Orlando area took the stand Wednesday morning to answer questions about his concerns regarding returning to the classroom including poor ventilation, limited protective equipment, and putting his 81-year-old mother-in-law, who lives with his family, at risk.
The plaintiffs rested their case late Wednesday afternoon. Attorneys representing Governor DeSantis and Commissioner Corcoran will present evidence starting Thursday at 8:30 a.m.
On July 6, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Department of Education issued an emergency order to require schools across the state to reopen brick and mortar buildings for students, teachers and staff at the start of the new school year in August.
According to the FEA, the purpose of the lawsuit is to allow districts to make the best decisions for their schools, students, employees and community.
An e-mail from the union said, "We do not believe the commissioner of education has the legal right to compel districts to open physical campuses without regard to the health and wellbeing of the students and staff in the district. The suit seeks to invalidate his emergency order."
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