Thursday, October 15, 2009

Sen. Dan Gelber Calls on Florida's Top Lawyer to Force Governor and Legislature Into Funding Public Education

Frustrated by a deaf ear to the plight of Florida’s struggling public education system, state Senator Dan Gelber on Tuesday called on Florida’s top lawyer to deploy the full weight of his office into legal combat.

“Our State Constitution provides that you are the "chief state legal officer" and thereby commands you to "exercise such powers and perform such duties as may be prescribed by law,” wrote the Miami Beach Democrat in a letter to Attorney General Bill McCollum delivered Tuesday.

“It is in that capacity and pursuant to that authority that I request you commence a lawsuit against the legislature and the Governor challenging the adequacy of education funding in Florida.”

The move stems from a recent meeting of the state Board of Education where a majority of board members expressed concern that its proposed education budget is “inadequate” – a clear violation of Florida’s constitution. The board has time and time again submitted a proposed budget that's much greater than what is funded by the Legislature and approved by the Governor.

Citing a 1934 state Supreme Court decision underlining the obligations of an Attorney General “in the absence of express legislative restrictions to the contrary, to exercise all such power and authority as public interests may require from time to time,” Senator Gelber noted other cases which have upheld the AG's standing to bring lawsuits, and reminded the attorney general of his duty to protect the interests of the general public.

“If you believe an action of the state – in this case the passing of a budget that fails to adequately provide a high quality system of free public schools -- creates a constitutional violation, you are obliged to exercise the broad powers that rest within your office and would allow you to remedy the violation,” Gelber wrote.

“I believe it is hard not to find such a violation exists.”

Senator Gelber, an outspoken public education advocate whose children attend public school, also noted that where previous attempts to litigate adequate funding may have failed, the constitution has since been amended, paving the way for the courts to enforce the mandate.

“Florida continues to have one of the worst high school graduation rates in the nation,” he noted. “Further, in the wake of budget cuts an epidemic of violence has broken out including a few much publicized deaths and serious crimes that clearly impair the ability of our teachers and schools to adequately and safely perform their constitutional duty.

“While you could demur and, instead, hope that citizen groups take on such a lawsuit, it seems more appropriate that Florida’s Attorney General act to defend our citizens from violations of their Constitution.”

Last year, the Board requested for the 09-10 school year, funding of $21.5 billion. It received from the Legislature only $17.9 billion, which the governor approved.

This year, the Board is seeking $19.3 billion, an amount it labeled “inadequate.”

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