POLK COUNTY, Fla. — A Polk County school board member says more than 1,200 teachers in the county may be fired if they call out on Monday to attend the "Take on Tallahassee" rally.
Billy Townsend, who represents Polk School Board District 1, took to social media on Friday to alert the public that Florida Department of Education's General Counsel Matthew Mears sent out an email telling teachers that "failure to report for duty constitutes an illegal strike under Florida law."
The Florida Department of Education said, at the request of the Polk County superintendent, they were asked to send an email. The DOE also said the state, nor the department, has any authority to fire any teachers.
DOE also had a legal obligation to make sure everyone was aware that such a mass absence of teachers would also mean students were simply not educated for a day, which is not acceptable.
Townsend shared the copied-and-pasted version of Mears' email on social media.
Townsend admits while he has "nothing personal on the hook," he said he will continue to support all Polk County employees regardless of whether they attend the rally or not.
"Everybody has to think closely about what they're doing. There are times when people have to make momentous choices," Townsend said on Facebook.
Townsend's social media post comes as teachers across the Tampa Bay area prepare for the Jan. 13 rally. Thousands of teachers, families and supporters will be taking to the streets in Tallahassee for improved funding for schools and fair pay for teachers.
Florida Education Association published the schedule and logistics for the Tallahassee rally. You can click here for more information on the rally.
Here is the full email from Mears that was sent out on Friday:
Concerning an Organized Failure to Report to Duty by Potentially 1,600+ Polk County Teachers:
The proposed failure to report represents a lack of commitment and focus on what is most important—the educational success of Polk County students. Of paramount importance for both the educational benefits of students and the professional credentials of teachers, the provisions and merits of ss. 447.201-.609, F.S., must be considered urgently by Polk County educational leadership and teachers.
Per the statute, 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.
A strike by public employees includes any deliberate and concerted failure of employees to report for duty that adversely affects the services of a public employer. This behavior is prohibited by the Florida Constitution and Florida Statutes.
An employee organization that violates the strike provision is subject to any damages suffered by a public employer as a result of the violation, a fine by the Public Employees Relations Commission up to $20,000 for each day that a work stoppage continues or the total cost to the public due to the strike, and have its certification as the bargaining agent for the employee unit revoked or suspended.
A public employee violating the strike provision may be terminated from their public position, subject to reemployment upon particular significant limitations.As the Department of Education, we have highest obligation to ensure that Polk County educators are advised of the risks associated with participating in a coordinated effort to not report for duty.
Matthew H. Mears
Office of the General Counsel
Florida Department of Education
325 W. Gaines St., Suite 1544
Tallahassee, FL 32399-0400
Following backlash the Polk County School District has been receiving as a result of that email, Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd sent an email out saying the email from the Florida Department of Education was not meant as a threat to fire teachers. She also said the school district is not prepared for the number of teacher absences.
Here is her full statement:
My primary obligations are to my students and teachers.
My absolute top concern is to keep students safe and ensure they receive a quality education. I have been working with local officials for months, and was aware and prepared for the 600 absences reported earlier this month, so I could facilitate people participating in the political process but also fulfill my duty — protecting our students.
However, as the rally drew closer, anticipated absences more than doubled, which left just days to plan for an additional 1,000 staff absences. I reached out to state leaders to request guidance on our plan to bring well-qualified and caring substitutes, and non-school based employees of our district, into schools to ensure a safe learning environment.
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. Earlier, Stephanie Yocum, president of the Polk Education Association, sent an email asking for those who have not RSVP’d to ride the bus to instead report to work. I support her request.
We thank all of our staff for the tremendous work they do for our students throughout the year. I also want to thank the substitutes, district staff members, and additional law enforcement officers who will be working in classrooms on Monday. We appreciate your flexibility and your willingness to step up when our students need you.
While this has been a challenging week for Polk County Public Schools, we are working together to give our best on Monday — and every day.
Because of the number of teacher absences, some Polk County high schools will be operating on a shortened schedule on Monday.
The superintendent said the Polk County Sheriff's Office is supplying 30 additional deputy sheriffs to provide in-classroom help for elementary schools. She said this will provide additional security on campus.
She said the district is preparing for higher than normal teacher absences on Monday due to the rally in Tallahassee.
Schools will be open on Monday, and they are working with Kelly Educational Staffing to secure as many substitute teachers as possible.
In addition, they will assign district staff to help support schools.
Here is the full press conference over the procedures taking place in schools on Monday.