Pinellas County commission has no authority over schools

Pinellas County Commission Chair Pat Gerard informs the public during a July 16 work session that the commission has no authority over the local school board and will not be part of the decision about the reopening of schools.

CLEARWATER — The Pinellas County Commission has authority to take action in a number of situations, especially during an emergency, but it has no power over the local school board.

Commission Chair Pat Gerard said commissioners have been getting a lot of email about schools reopening. During a July 16 work session meeting, she advised the public that the commission had no authority over the schools and will not be part of any decision about reopening them. Gerard also said the same goes for the state health department in Pinellas and its director, Dr. Ulyee Choe.

“I understand your distress,” she said. “I have distress as well.”

Choe said he had been working with the schools in an advisory role to help School Superintendent Michael Grego align reopening plans with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, using social distancing and wearing of face masks.

He said parents had three options, including in-person classes and distance learning. He said the school district had ordered 500,000 face masks and 41,000 laptops to be prepared for either option.

He said using a traditional model of in-person learning would increase the disease in the community.

“We will see cases in the schools,” he said, adding that children were less likely to spread the virus.

“But it’s not impossible,” he said.

If cases are reported in the schools, isolation guidance would be followed, which could lead to classroom closures and interruptions in the school’s educational experience, he said. He said the district was continuing to monitor the trends.

Commissioner Ken Welch said he thought the school district had put out the best plan it could.

“But inevitably, it (opening the schools) will lead to spread (of the virus),” he said.

He said commissioners were hearing a lot from the public. Some people want them to do more to stop the spread and others want them to do less and would prefer that they revoke the face mask order.

“But there’s no bigger impact than children going back to school,” he said. “We should be concerned that this is a spreader event that puts us over.”

Welch said his daughter is starting college this fall and had received notification that classes would be online.

“Why not K-12,” he asked.

County Attorney Jewel White said she had reached out to the school board’s attorney to confirm that the county commission had no authority and had been told that only the school board, state Department of Education and the governor has authority over school districts. She added that the DOH in Pinellas is a state agency, and it also has no authority over the schools.

“This board has no jurisdiction,” she said.

During the public comment period, Karen Mullins from Dunedin said even though the county commission had no authority over the schools, it would have to deal with the aftermath. She said the state is not doing its job. She wants the county to impose more restrictions.

Barbara Walker from Palm Harbor agreed. She said the commission needed to stand up for the people in Pinellas County because national and state officials were not. She said she would attend the next school board meeting to voice her objections.

She advocates enacting a stay at home or shelter in place order until community spread is under control, followed by wearing masks when businesses reopen.

Joelin Murphy of Dunedin also wants to shut down. She is worried about reopening the schools.

Kristine Petrulis of Seminole said she is “petrified” for the teachers and students.

The Rev. Andy Oliver, pastor at the Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg, said there were two ways to delay the order from the Department of Education to reopen schools in August. The first was for the local DOH to say it wasn’t safe and the second was for the county commission to roll back to phase one of the recovery plan.

However, White said that wasn’t true. She repeated that the county commission has no authority over the school board. She pointed out that phase one of the state’s recovery plan is not the county’s plan. She said the county did have authority under the local state of emergency to take action, giving examples of the previous beach closures and the county’s initial safer at home order that had been superseded by the state order.

“But still that gives no authority over schools,” she said.

Welch said schools “represent a tipping point.”

“I have concerns about the hospitals and schools is where the most danger is,” he said, adding that is it “all connected.”

“What happens there will impact our hospitals and emergency medical services. We need to support the school board. They have a very difficult decision going forward,” he said.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.