Florida school districts file appeal in HB 7069 lawsuit

The main lawsuit over last year’s landmark education law will continue.

The districts still fighting to stop 2017’s House bill 7069 filed papers last week to bring a Leon County Circuit judge’s ruling to the First District Court of Appeal.

The eventual outcome in the case could affect a half-dozen key issues — including House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s signature Schools of Hope initiative, school boards’ authority in charter school contract negotiations and millions of dollars in charter school facilities funding.

Three of the 13 districts, including Duval County Public Schools, voted to pull out of the case after Judge John Cooper rejected the multifaceted lawsuit on all counts.

But 10 remaining districts, including Lee and Pinellas Counties, are backing the appeal. An 11th district, Collier County, joined part of the case as an intervenor.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the state are trying to put the brakes on two other, separate court challenges taking aim at the same law. One is a narrow case, filed only by the Palm Beach County School Board. It challenges provisions that require school districts to share $91.2 million with charter schools they authorize.

The state filed a motion last week trying to pause that case while courts weigh the appeal of the other, broader lawsuit. A higher court’s ruling could set a decisive precedent for the court in the Palm Beach lawsuit to follow.

The state’s lawyers noted a new law passed this year, HB 7055, “relieves the Plaintiff of any obligation that it might have had under HB 7069” to share local property-tax revenue with charters. That, they argued, removes some urgency of the case.

Palm Beach’s legal team fired back this week:

[I]t cannot be disputed that the Board has an immediate need to have this issue resolved. In February 2018, the Board was compelled to distribute over $9 million of its local Capital Outlay Millage revenues pursuant to statutory provisions which it contends are unconstitutional. The Board cannot recoup these funds without a declaration by this Court that the Charter School Millage Provisions are unconstitutional. For this reason, the Board’s claims are not moot, despite the fact that the challenged provisions have since been amended by HB 7055.

The amount of money Palm Beach had to share is the third-highest among Florida’s 67 school districts. And it represents a higher per-pupil than Miami-Dade or Broward Counties.

The state’s lawyers also contend a third lawsuit that aims to strike the entire 2017 law from the books is now moot. That’s because lawmakers passed a routine housekeeping measure during this year’s legislative session that re-enacts all the laws passed last year — including HB 7069.

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