Polk Teachers Threatened With Firing If They Miss Work for Rally

Polk County public school teachers received an email late Friday warning that they could be fired if the participate in a rally for increased school funding in Tallahassee on Monday. The warning came from the Florida Department of Education’s top lawyer.

With school administrators scrambling to find one-day replacements for all 1,300 or more teachers planning to attend the rally, parents had expressed concerns, WFLA reported.

Teachers union officials say they have warned Polk administrators for months to prepare for filling positions on the day of the rally. School leaders in Hillsborough and Pinellas told the station they had been planning for the rally for months and have no classroom shortage.

While the rally is expected to draw thousands of teachers from around the state, only teachers in Polk County received warnings, Bay News 9 reported. The letter was sent after Polk Schools Superintendent Jaqueline Byrd asked the state education department about legal consequences for teachers leaving school, the station reported.

“DOE had a legal and ethical obligation to make sure teachers were aware of the law,” a DOE spokesperson told Bay News 9.

The email from Matthew Mears, the state education department’s general counsel, said “a concerted failure to report for duty constitutes an illegal strike under Florida law” and could subject the teachers union to fines of up to $20,000 for each day teachers don’t show up at work.

Teachers say they are using paid time off to attend the rally; many of them arranged for their own substitutes.

The email drew a rebuke from School Board member Billy Townsend, who wrote in a Facebook post, “Everybody has to think closely about what they’re doing. There are times when people have to make momentous choices.”

Mears’ email was sent at 7:22 p.m. on the Friday before the Monday rally to Polk’s school district superintendent and attorney. The email to teachers was sent at 9:21 by Teddra Porteous, assistant superintendent for human resources.

Classes remain scheduled for Monday in Polk and a plan is in place to ensure students are safe and supervised, the school district said on Facebook. That plan includes “using qualified substitutes; using certified school-based employees, such as guidance counselors and media specialists to cover classrooms; and assigning district staff members to schools to provide additional support.”

Some school districts in Florida have cancelled classes for Monday, according to news reports.

The reported 1,300 teachers that have requested a personal day off Monday-represent nearly one-fifth of the county’s 6,800 teachers.

Byrd issued a statement today saying she has been working since November with the agency that provides substitute teachers to make sure vacancies were filled on Monday, The Ledger reported. She said she sought the state’s guidance on Friday after the number of teachers requested time off spiked.

“I reached out to state leaders to request guidance on our plan to bring well-qualified and caring non-classroom employees of our district into schools for one day to ensure a safe learning environment for our students,” she said through a spokesperson.

Seven hundred Polk County teachers have submitted RSVPs and been confirmed to attend the rally on buses supplied by the teachers union, according to Polk Education Association President Stephanie Yocum.

In an email sent to teachers this morning, she urged those who did not receive confirmations from the teachers union to report to work on Monday.

“It is exciting that we will have one of the largest groups traveling to Tallahassee. For those who are staying at their schools, please show your support by wearing red, working only your contractual hours, and contact your representatives to support our efforts in the Capitol,” she wrote.

And an earlier report:

The email sent to Polk public school teachers Friday night:

From: “Porteous, Teddra” <[email protected]>
Date: January 10, 2020 at 9:21:54 PM EST
To: “All Staff (Restricted Use)” <[email protected]>
Subject: Fwd:  Concerning an Organized Failure to Report to Duty by Potentially 1,600+ Polk County Teachers:

Dear PCPS employees,  This evening, Polk County Public Schools received the below correspondence from the General Counsel for the Florida Department of Education regarding the “Organized Failure to Report to Duty by Potentially 1,600+ Polk County Teachers.” Accordingly, I am bringing this matter to your attention.

From: “Mears, Matthew” <[email protected]>
Date: January 10, 2020 at 7:22:20 PM EST
To: “Byrd, Jacqueline” <[email protected]>, “Bridges, Wes” <[email protected]>
Subject: 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
General Counsel
Office of the General Counsel
Florida Department of Education
325 W. Gaines St., Suite 1544
Tallahassee, FL  32399-0400
(850) 245-0442