Teachers snub proposal for AG legal services

Jan 18, 2012

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would require the state attorney general’s office to defend teachers in certain legal cases. But, Regan McCarthy reports not all teachers are behind the move.

A bill that claims to be aimed at protecting teachers made its first committee stop today. The bill, sponsored by Representative Jeffery Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg would require the attorney general to defend a teacher in certain legal cases.

“The bill requires the office of the attorney general to defend the teacher throughout the civil action if the office of the attorney general believes the teacher acted within good faith, in what they believed was good faith, within the scope of the teacher’s duties in enforcing discipline policies.”

Teachers would still have the option of selecting a different attorney if they’d like, but Brandes says the idea behind the bill is to protect the state’s teachers from frivolous lawsuits.

“When we offer up our attorney general and the services that the office provides, we are actually offering up the highest quality that the state stands for and I think that’s noble and should be valued by our teachers.

Republican Representative Bill Hager of Boca Raton says this is a bill he thinks is very important.

“I’m a former middle school classroom teacher where on a daily basis, momentary basis, one is engaged non-stop in discipline to retain control of the classroom.”

But some worry about the cost. Brandes says 22 cases have arisen in the last year. The attorney general’s office has suggested that if it had been responsible for defending those cases it might have cost as much as 2.1-million dollars, or about 96-thousand dollars per case. Brandes says only about five percent of the cases go to trial and are settled for a much lower cost. None the less, Representative Martin Kiar, a Democrat from Davie says he’s not sure it’s a good use of the state’s money.

“Currently, under Florida law, if a teacher is sued civilly, then they will be either represented by their union attorney, which is provided to them, or the school board, there’s already representation there.”

And Kiar says he suspects there could be cases the Attorney General wouldn’t be able to defend because of a possible conflict of interest, meaning the state could have to hire expensive private lawyers. B Grassel, is the president of the Lake County Education Association. She says the teachers she represents don’t understand why this bill is needed.

“We hear from Tallahassee that there’s less money than ever and the governor is trying to tell us that he wants less government in our lives than ever. I just don’t understand why you’re trying to do this.

Grassel says if the government has extra money to spend she’s got some suggestions for where it can be used—like back in individual school districts.

The bill also would give the “professional teacher associations” that don’t participate in collective bargaining, license to represent teachers in some situations without following all of the rules teachers unions are required to follow—It’s a move Representative Kiar says he thinks is a “union busting technique.”

“Currently, when you collectively bargain every teacher is going to benefit from the contract that is agreed to with the school board whether you belong to the union or whether you don’t. And what’s going to happen if this is allowed—there will be teachers, who will decide not to join the union and they’re going to join groups like Pen and others, and they’re going to join that not knowing that by taking away their union dues from the union and by taking away others that will dilute their power in the collective bargaining process.”

The bill passed out of the committee with an 8-6  vote. It now moves to the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. A similar bill in the Senate has not yet been heard.