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” <teddra.porteous@polk-fl.net>
Date: January 10, 2020 at 9:21:54 PM EST
To: “All Staff (Restricted Use)” <AllStaff@polk-fl.net>
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” <Matthew.Mears@fldoe.org>
Date: January 10, 2020 at 7:22:20 PM EST
To: “Byrd, Jacqueline” <jacqueline.byrd@polk-fl.net>, “Bridges, Wes” <wes.bridges@polk-fl.net>
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

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Barry Friedman founded Lkldnow.com in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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  1. This is crazy they have a right, start firing them when polk county already has a teacher shortage is crazy. By them going to get wages raise if passed more teachers will come to polk schools which are short teachers now. Fining a teacher $20,000 for not showing up is half their salary already. Stupidity

  2. Total BS from the state. Teachers deserve more $$. I could not be a teacher with the lack of discipline in our schools today and the lack of respect the students have. Better to hang on to all teachers we have! Sad situation.

  3. Polk County has to be the worst school district in the state! Children are failing at an alarming rate, they’re completely disengaged, as are most of the teachers. It doesn’t surprise me they threaten to fire the teachers. The first thing they do with children is suspend them, often times not even contacting the parent. It’s extremely disheartening as a parent. I understand the teachers are neglected. What the state and Polk school board fails to recognize is they’re not just hurting teachers, they’re sabotaging our children’s futures!!

  4. I believe employers should be able to fire individual employees based on their merits, and pay individual employees based on their merits; and I further believe that employees have the right to use their contractually negotiated sick/leave time however they want, free of employer oversight or intrusion into their personal affairs.

  5. Could you imagine Polk County firing 1300 teachers and trying to fill those openings? They can’t even find enough subs with high school diplomas to fill those positions for one day! Now multiply that by 67 counties. Imagine the teacher shortage that would cause. Stand by your beliefs and go to Tallahassee. You don’t make enough money for it to matter if those government stooges fire you! Stand strong together.

  6. Since the first email went out last night at 7:22 and the second email went out to the teachers at 9:21, why has there been no statement issued, that I have seen, from Superintendent Byrd in regards to this issue? Is it because she does not know how to handle this situation, or is she afraid of losing her own job by standing up for her teachers? As her job is an appointed position, I think we all know where her allegiance is!

  7. Matthew Mears and/or his legal team are saying “ When teachers collectively decide not to show up for work on a specific day…” is his interpretation. When a teacher or staff schedules the time off, regardless of whether or not other faculty or staff schedule that same day off, does not constitute “deciding not to show up for work.” It seems also, that the school board is picking and choosing which rules and regulations it’s wanting to enforce. There are rules concerning classroom size limits, that in Polk County, are being surpassed at schools all over. Why are they not enforcing that as hard as this? I think they are trying to make an example with the teachers in showing “power and obedience over teachers and staff.”

    What happens if this all goes through? Right now, you have shortages of teachers, and shortages of substitutes filling those teaching holes. Are we trying to push people out of our county? Are we trying to become another Flint, Michigan?

    I would be looking for teachers to be brought back with all their seniority reinstated and a resignation AND apology from everyone involved in this ghastly and unprovoked scare tactic towards our teachers and staff, who work underpaid, to better the lives of our children and students of tomorrow.

  8. Teachers should stand behind what they believe. What a stupid, ignorant mistake that the Department of Education would be making if the Fire all those teachers. Truth of the matter is, the general counsel isn’t busting his butt off and putting up with the bull crap. He’s no better than anyone else. Why don’t he come to the classroom for a week and see how he likes dealing with the craziness and getting paid pennies. Clearly a bullying tactic. If that’s the case then take his salary away from him and give it to the teachers and see how he liked it. Things would be different. “I guarantee it.”.

    Don’t let the great “Superintendent, Jacke Byrd” make you think she’s the cat’s meow. Trust me, if people really knew the shadiness she was involved in, I can assure you that she wouldn’t be superintendent. She thinks she’s too good to talk to parents. What a great representative for the Polk County School Board! Why won’t she support her teachers? I mean really, isn’t she supposed to support her staff?!?! I guess it goes back to cowardly behavior!

    I support the teachers of Polk County 100%!

  9. Jana Billman Thanks for all of your support in these comments! I am a proud Polk County teacher. But I am also a bit overwhelmed. I work a 2nd job to pay for my student loans and basically to support extra needs in my own classroom. If I do not have to stay past 11 p.m. tonight waiting tables (Sunday night before the rally), then I intend on driving up to Tallahassee…on my own dime. Standing and holding a sign…after waitressing all night long. And driving..all the way back. *Man! I wish I drank coffee. But I digress. Again, thanks for all of your support! Teachers appreciate it. And I’d like to mention, that this rally is not just about our pay. It is about reform and budgeting for all aspects in the public education process. From over-testing, to sticking to classroom size amendments (that were passed by the voters!), to money per pupil, to working our contract hours, etc!

  10. This is ridiculous! So they are going to fire all of the teachers that do not show up for work on Monday Why don’t they show the same determination to deal with the everyday issues at schools in the classrooms? Lack of discipline, lac of parental i=support, lack of supplies, resources, lack of time for teachers to do their jobs because their “Professional Planning Time” is usually compromised with meetings, IEP’s and more. It is time teachers take their futures into their hands. It is way overdue! Teachers should be entitled to go on strike. They are NOT first responders. If teachers go on strike it is a true wake-up call and so the DEP has to listen and negotiate. I support ALL TEACHERS 150%

  11. Go ahead Mr Mears, fire 1,300 teachers in a district that already has a difficult time retaining teachers… I dare you to follow through on your vile threat.

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