Leon County School Board votes to hire attorney, gearing up for legal fight over mask mandate

Published: Sep. 2, 2021 at 8:25 PM EDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - At a special meeting Thursday morning, the Leon County School Board unanimously voted to authorize Superintendent Rocky Hanna to spend up to $50,000 on legal representation.

The number is a $40,000 increase from the previously allocated $10,000.

After Superintendent Rocky Hanna instituted a temporary mask mandate for students in pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent him a letter, detailing “grave concerns.”

Leon County Schools responded with a letter on Wednesday, and they are now waiting on the state’s next move.

Attorney Jamie Cole, with Weiss Serota Law Firm, helped Hanna draft the letter. He spoke to the School Board at Thursday morning’s meeting about their different legal options.

In the letter, the District argued it is following the DOH rule based on its language. Superintendent Hanna wrote to comply with the state’s interpretation of the rule, they would have to ignore CDC guidelines, the Florida state Constitution, and Florida statutes.

In the letter, the district also argues that while the DOH rule does not require parents to provide medical documentation to opt out, it also does not prohibit school districts from requiring medical documentation.

Cole is representing Miami-Dade on a similar issue; he says Leon County is different because they began the school year by complying with the state’s interpretation of the emergency rule.

“You gave it a shot. And you had a substantial amount of cases, and I know you had one of your students pass away. And I think you did try very hard. And even when you adopted the policy and directive that you adopted, you did only do it in K through 8, or pre-K through 8,” Cole told the board.

Cole urged the School Board to wait for the state’s next response before taking any further action.

Cole told the Board they have three options.

The first would be to petition the First District Court of Appeals, challenging the way the state’s emergency rule was adopted.

That’s a tactic the Miami-Dade Board has chosen to use, filing in the Third District Court of Appeals. Cole said it’s a rapid process.

The second option is to challenge the substance of the rule itself through the Division of Administrative Hearings.

Cole told the Board that process would take slightly longer, but it would still be quick.

“The parental bill of rights provision expressly says that you are allowed to infringe on parental rights if you have a compelling state interest, which, fighting COVID certainly is, and protecting your students certainly is,” Cole said.

The third option is to file for a declaratory judgment, arguing the state cannot issue fines and penalties if they are not approved by the legislature.

Cole emphasized it would not be a lawsuit based on “damages,” but rather simply to invalidate the rule.

“Unless they drop it, I would think you’re going to want to defend yourselves and take those types of actions,” Cole said.

School Board members argued during Thursday’s meeting that the issue is broader than masks, but rather, a battle for home rule and the right of school districts to protect their own children.

“I think it is worth the fight. I think our parents and our citizenry want us, when we need to, to stand up and say, we elected you to protect our kids. And I think that’s what we’re doing,” said School Board Member Rosanne Wood. “Do school boards have local control? Are we able to make the best decisions for our kids and our employees and our community? And that’s what we’ve done. And I hope it stands.”

School Board Member Darryl Jones says this decision will set a precedent.

“It was not too long ago that we were acknowledging the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education in Topeka, and I think this has opportunity also to provide that type of milestone precedent that will speak for decades and generations to come,” Jones said.

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