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Under Protest, Broward School Board Votes To Bring Students Back To Campuses Starting Next Friday

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Miami Herald photo of Broward School Superintendent Robert Runcie speaking to the media on Tuesday, March 5, 2019.

The Broward County School Board reached a compromise with state education officials: Instead of an Oct. 5 return, students will come back into classrooms in phases from Oct. 9-15.

The local officials elected to run Broward County's public schools complained for hours about what they characterized as an unconstitutional usurping of their authority by state leaders before ultimately approving a compromise that brings students back into campuses beginning next Friday and avoids a potential $315 million loss.

Under the new timeline, students who choose in-person classes will return in phases from Oct. 9-15, with the youngest children and those with disabilities coming back first and older students following. State and local officials met halfway on the final reopening date, since State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran had pushed for students to be back in classrooms Oct. 5, while the board was planning an Oct. 14 start.

“Those additional days make a big difference and gives us a lot more comfort in being able to execute our reopening plan,” Superintendent Robert Runcie said of the Oct. 9 return date during Thursday's six-hour in-person board meeting in Fort Lauderdale.

At first, the board seriously considered whether it was worth risking financial consequences if the district didn't meet Corcoran's demands. Later, when they were told he would approve the alternate schedule, the board members softened.

School Board Chair Donna Korn announced mid-way through the meeting that Florida Department of Education officials had indicated to Runcie that Corcoran was willing to give the district a few more days to prepare. Board members praised Corcoran for listening to their concerns and being willing to change his mind.

Taryn Fenske, a spokesperson for Corcoran, wrote in an email after the meeting: "The Commissioner will approve the dates Broward voted on, ... but he does not support it."

Compromise or not, the board's decision is a win for Corcoran and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who successfully forced the state's two largest school districts to open several days sooner than they'd planned. Miami-Dade County Public Schools is embarking on its own staggered reopening starting Monday, although board members in that county had originally opted to begin Oct. 14.

Throughout the pandemic, DeSantis and Corcoran have argued parents should be able to choose whether to send their children to in-person classes and that the benefits of reopening outweighed the potential public health risks. They have said school closures were too harmful for students with disabilities, those who were already at socioeconomic and academic disadvantages before COVID-19 and those who face abuse or hunger at home.

But politics are also at play. On the same day in July that President Trump tweeted imploring schools to open in the fall, Corcoran issued an emergency order to districts: He told them they must open schools five days a week, offering in-person classes and other educational services to students who chose to return to campuses, starting in early August.

That order, which was challenged in court, is the root of the conflict that's still playing out now.

For districts that complied, Corcoran agreed to fund schools based on their enrollment before COVID-19 struck — an attractive offer since public schools throughout the state have lost tens of thousands of students to private and charter schools and homeschooling since the pandemic began. Districts that refused to comply would risk losing that money.

Broward has lost about 9,000 students.

Another potential risk: The department could opt to distribute funding for students who are attending classes remotely at a lower per-pupil rate than those who choose in-person classes.

While Corcoran gave South Florida districts a pass on reopening in August because of the surge of COVID-19 cases that hit the region over the summer, by now, his patience has apparently run out. He wrote letters to the leaders of both Miami-Dade and Broward schools last week directing them to open Oct. 5.

If the Broward County school board refused to reopen on Corcoran's timeline, and the department made good on both funding threats, the district stood to lose up to $315 million, Chief Financial Officer Judith Marte told board members during Thursday's meeting. She estimated that could lead to 4,300 layoffs.

“The state has the ability to hold the purse strings of the district,” Runcie told the board on Thursday. “On principle, yes, it makes sense for us to go and fight this. But sometimes you have to lose to win. And when we have significant dollars at stake that could impact our teachers, our classrooms, our students, we have a responsibility to make sure … they are protected.”

Board members were infuriated that they found themselves in the position they were today. They argued Corcoran had no authority to impose an earlier reopening date on them. Board member Patricia Good went so far as to characterize Corcoran's approach as "extortion" and "heartless," and Rosalind Osgood called it "ungodly."

For one, the state constitution gives school board members authority over the schools in their district. Further, the district's plan that Corcoran himself approved over the summer listed Oct. 16 as the target reopening date. That put Broward on more solid footing than Miami-Dade, which had committed in its own plan to open schools Oct. 5, depending on local health conditions. In the end, that distinction hardly mattered.

Regardless of their decision to move forward with reopening sooner than they'd planned, board members said they would consider a legal challenge of what they argued was overstepping by the state.

"I want us to get past this decision before we decide what we’re going to be doing next, regarding the loss of local authority," Korn said.

Before the meeting, the Broward Teachers Union held a press conference outside the school district headquarters.

Anna Fusco, the union's president, "does not tolerate bullies," she said, "and I sure do not tolerate threats nor accept it. I stand up against it. I stand up for everyone that is scared to have a voice."

Corcoran's spokespeople did not respond to an email asking for a response to Fusco's criticisms. Last week, he placed the blame for school reopening delays in South Florida on "union bosses."