ORLANDO, Fla. — The fallout intensified Saturday over a controversial letter sent to Polk County teachers, saying they could be fired for attending a statewide rally for education in Tallahassee Monday.
- Florida Dept. of Education letter ties mass attendance to strike
- Superintendent says letter not meant to be a threat
- Polk County says it will have classes covered Monday
- PREVIOUS STORIES:
Over 1,000 Polk County teachers were expected to take part in the rally, using their own personal time off. The rally is not only about teacher pay, but about funding for public schools in general.
But a letter, sent to teachers Friday night, sparked an uproar that has changed plans.
The letter came from the Florida Dept. of Education and was forwarded to the county's teachers. The agency said it drafted the letter after the county's school superintendent asked the state for an opinion as it scrambled to find substitutes for the teachers.
Screen shot showing email sent by attorney for Florida Department of Education stating that employees or an employee organization that violates the "strike provision" in Florida statutes could be subject to fines up to $20,000 per day.
The letter said that the number of teachers planning to attend the rally could amount to a strike, which is illegal under Florida law. The letter goes on to say that employees who violate the strike provision may be fired, and any organization, like a teachers union, could be fined up to $20,000 a day and have its bargaining certification revoked or suspended.
Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd, in a statement released Saturday, said she had been working with local officials regarding the rally for months and had been prepared for 600 absences.
"The FDOE provided guidance and made the decision to issue an opinion on the situation. The FDOE issued its opinion with the intention it be shared with my employees. It was imperative that I share the email with staff to ensure they are well informed. I, along with FDOE, must ensure students are protected and that all teachers are aware of the laws of Florida.
"The letter from FDOE’s General Counsel was not a threat from me to fire staff. It is my duty as superintendent to inform parents, teachers, and students of the status of our educational environment and ensure each and every Polk County student receives the best education every day."
The school district now says classes will be covered with substitutes and district staff, and they will have an increased law enforcement presence on school campuses.
A Warning of a Threat?
Still, teachers told Spectrum News that they viewed the letter as a veiled threat.
"To me, this is just one more abuse by the Florida Dept. of Education trying to threaten and bully their people into submission," said teacher Branden Lane.
Stephanie Yocum, president of the Polk Education Association, said 700 Polk County teachers still plan to attend the rally. In a letter, she asked that teachers who had not yet RSVPed for the rally, stay home and go to work instead. She said the union's attorneys will back the teachers attending so they don't face consequences.
"We are using our first amendment right and our right to freely assemble to lobby our legislators for our kids,” said Yocum.
We've spoken to other school districts in surrounding counties. Officials say they don't have nearly as many teachers going, and they have plans to cover all of their absences.
Lane said he believes so many Polk teachers are going because they feel they don't get the support they need from the district.
“We feel as though our district staff just isn't listening and I think teachers are fed up and I think it's time for Polk to pay attention to what their workers are saying," Lane said.
"Over My Dead Body Will Anybody be Fired"
A statement from the Florida Dept. of Education Saturday said that while teachers could be fired, that would be up to the county. The state could not fire teachers.
Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend, who planned to ride with teachers to Tallahassee Monday, said he will fight any attempts to fire teachers who attended.
“If this is a local decision, over my dead body will anybody be fired," he said. "Everything about that email was a disaster from the state level [to] the local level."
The Florida Education Association is also defending Polk County teachers. Federick Ingram, president of the FEA, issued this statement on Twitter Saturday:
"FEA stands in solidarity with the Polk Education Association and we’ve been working closely with their leadership around the clock. Together, we will continue to raise our voices until every student in Florida attends a fully-staffed school.
"Our members are frustrated – it's well documented that Florida is facing a teacher and education staff professional shortage crisis. Our students deserve quality teachers in front of their classroom every day.
"That's why we're rallying, so lawmakers take this shortage & the conditions in our schools seriously. 20 years of bad policies/low pay are rearing their ugly head. Legislators have been warned repeatedly that their decisions were harming students, but they've refused to listen.
"Nobody wants to take a personal day, drive round trip to Tallahassee, and return to work the next day but they care about their students and want to advocate for THEM.
"Take on Tallahassee is only necessary because of the failure of Tallahassee policy makers to listen to educators. They have blamed educators for everything else. They cannot and will not get away with blaming educators for understaffed schools."
Spectrum News reporters Rachael Krause, Stephanie Claytor, Greg Angel and Tammie Fields contributed to this report.