Lawyer: Polk teach­ers at rally could be fired

Ed­u­ca­tors, par­ents ac­cuse district of schem­ing to keep down at­ten­dance

Orlando Sentinel - - LOCAL & STATE - By Les­lie Postal

The top at­tor­ney with the Florida Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion is warning that if 1,600 Polk County teach­ers take a day off to at­tend an Florida ed­u­ca­tion rally in Tal­la­has­see on Mon­day, their ac­tion could con­sti­tute an il­le­gal strike, and they could be fired.

The at­tor­ney’s warning, in an email sent to the Polk school district late Fri­day, cre­ated a furor over the week­end, with many ed­u­ca­tors and par­ents post­ing an­gry mes­sages on so­cial me­dia, ar­gu­ing the state and the school district were schem­ing to keep down at­ten­dance at a le­gal gath­er­ing.

“You can­not use scare tac­tics to make em­ploy­ees feel like they can’t stand up to the state for what they de­serve,” read one Face­book mes­sage.

Florida’s statewide teach­ers union or­ga­nized the “Take on

Tal­la­has­see” rally, with thou­sands of teach­ers, par­ents and ed­u­ca­tion ad­vo­cates plan­ning to march for bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing, higher teacher pay and an end to what they call heavy-handed state poli­cies.

In Lake, Or­ange, Osce­ola and Semi­nole county school dis­tricts, of­fi­cials said the num­ber of teach­ers who had re­quested a day off Mon­day was not out of the or­di­nary. Com­bined, the teach­ers unions in those dis­tricts ex­pect more than 700 peo­ple in Tal­la­has­see but not all are teach­ers, as par­ents, school board mem­bers and oth­ers plan to rally, too.

In Polk, ini­tially about 600 teach­ers re­quested Mon­day off. Un­der their con­tracts, teach­ers are al­lowed to take per­sonal days.

Six hun­dred was a man­age­able num­ber of teacher ab­sences, but then last week an­other 1,000 looked likely to take off, too, ac­cord­ing to a Face­book post from Su­per­in­ten­dent Jac­que­line Byrd.

That prompted Byrd to “re­quest guid­ance” from the state ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment be­cause she wor­ried that too many teach­ers gone would be detri­men­tal to stu­dents, she said. “My ab­so­lute top con­cern is to keep stu­dents safe and en­sure they re­ceive a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion.”

Matthew Mears, the ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment’s gen­eral coun­sel, emailed Byrd about 7:20 p.m. Fri­day.

“A con­certed fail­ure to re­port for duty con­sti­tutes an il­le­gal strike un­der Florida law. When teach­ers col­lec­tively de­cide not to show up for work on a spe­cific day, chil­dren suf­fer as learn­ing slows or even stops al­to­gether,” he wrote.

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