Lawsuit: Miami-Dade School Board Violated Free Speech by Shutting Down Charter School Bid

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Five years ago, the principal and assistant principal of Neva King Cooper Educational Center in Homestead decided that their students, all of whom are severely disabled, might be better off if their school became a charter. They presented the idea to the school’s advisory committee, which supported looking into it.

But when Miami-Dade County School District officials got wind of the plan, they quickly blocked a vote by teachers and parents. Then the principal, assistant principal, and another employee were reassigned to district offices and banned from speaking to anyone in the Neva King Cooper community.

Even worse, while the school district investigated the case, the trio — principal Alberto T. Fernandez, vice principal Henny Cristobol, and placement specialist Patricia Ramirez — were forced to do menial chores: sorting and packaging crayons, scanning documents, and removing staples from papers. Ramirez was so distraught she sometimes went to the bathroom to cry.

In 2014, the state ruled that the district illegally retaliated against the three, and the principals got new jobs in the district. But they now say they're entitled to more than that.

The three have filed a new lawsuit against the School Board in federal court, arguing the retaliation violated their rights to free speech. They’re seeking lost wages, damages for mental and emotional distress, and their old jobs back.

A district spokesman said the district does not comment on pending litigation. But in a motion to dismiss the suit, the School Board argues that the three had failed to offer any facts to show their rights were violated and that the Board could not be held liable because it didn’t sanction the retaliation.

Besides, the School Board argues, the matter had already been settled by 2014 state ruling. “This, in no uncertain terms, is plaintiffs’ attempt to get a second bite of the apple,” the Board's lawyers write in their response.

But U.S. District Judge Darrin P. Gayles disagreed, dismissing the School Board’s motion in an order earlier this month.

At the heart of the case is a state law that says any public school can turn into a charter school if 50 percent of teachers and 50 percent of parents vote in favor of the change.

But when Fernandez told his supervisor of the potential conversion at Neva King Cooper in February 2012, district administrators began monitoring the school and spreading “misleading and one-sided information,” according to the complaint. They ultimately canceled the ballot procedure.

A district investigation then found evidence that Fernandez and Cristobol had tried to influence the outcome of the vote and used district time and resources to facilitate the conversation. Cristobol was given a written reprimand, and Fernandez was told he would not be reappointed.

But in 2014, the Florida Department of Education found that district officials’ actions indeed constituted retaliation against Fernandez, Cristobol, and Ramirez and upheld a decision from the state Division of Administrative Hearings. The principals didn't get their old jobs back but were given comparable positions elsewhere in Miami-Dade.

That's not good enough, the three now claim in federal court. In their new complaint, they argue the School Board has an “unwritten, long-standing, and widespread custom against the creation of conversion charter schools.” There are no such schools in the district, and board members have said that “there will be no conversions” and that allowing a conversion charter school was “opening a can of worms,” according to the lawsuit. 

It also says that after Fernandez and Cristobol were reassigned in May 2012, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho made an unannounced visit to Neva King Cooper and said, "This school is a Miami-Dade County public school, and it is going to remain a Miami-Dade County public school, and anybody who wants to change that will have to go through me."

All in all, the plaintiffs argue, the case shows the lengths Carvalho's administration is willing to go to prevent a vote on a charter school conversion.

“The events of Neva King are part of a pattern of conduct to prevent the establishment of conversion charter schools within Miami-Dade County,” the complaint says. “School officials will take any measure, including violating civil rights, to support the custom in place.”

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