Lawyer: Polk teachers at rally could be fired
Educators, parents accuse district of scheming to keep down attendance
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.