Dept. of Education, Polk Co. Schools respond to fears over firing of teachers attending rally

Polk County

POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – The Florida Department of Education is threatening to fire more than 1,000 Polk County teachers if they call out Monday to attend a rally at the state capitol.

The DOE sent an email to Polk County Public Schools’ administrators Friday night that has many educators feeling bullied by the state and fearful of losing their jobs.

Teachers started requesting time off in November to attend a public education rally in Tallahassee on Jan. 13.

“I followed Polk County School Board policy with the amount of time prior to me putting in my absence, said teacher, Charma Tillinger. “Absolutely. Each of us did.”

But as the date inched closer, Polk County Schools realized up to 1,600 educators would be at the capitol. A number of anticipated absences they say more than doubled the week before the rally.

An email sent to Polk County Schools from the Florida DOE Sunday night issued a warning.

“A concerted failure to report for duty constitutes an illegal strike under Florida law… A public employee violating the strike provision may be terminated from their public position.”

“It was a pretty transparent threat I thought from the state government saying they were going to fire teachers who were going on an illegal strike,” said school board member Billy Townsend. “It’s not a strike. It’s time off they earned.”

Some teachers have canceled their time off and plan on coming to work Monday. Others have more reason to go to Tallahassee.

“Considering they can’t staff the current open positions, I’m not very fearful,” said Rhoda Huynh, who is a school counselor in the district.

8 On Your Side reached out to the Florida DOE. They told us in a statement it is “not the employing agency and does not have any say whatsoever in a teacher being fired.”

“Our number one concern is to keep students safe and ensure they receive a quality education. 

This email was specific to Polk county. In collaboration with the superintendent, DOE had a legal and ethical obligation to make sure teachers were aware of the law.

DOE is not the employing agency and does not have any say whatsoever in a teacher being fired.

DOE also had a legal obligation to make sure everyone was aware that such a mass absence of teachers would also mean students were simply not educated for a day, which is not acceptable.”

Florida Department of Education

Polk County Schools Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd took to Facebook Saturday saying, “The letter from FDOE’s General Counsel was not a threat from me to fire staff.” She called it an “opinion” from the state after asking for “guidance.”

The school district said they have everything under control. School board officials say more than 600 substitute teachers will take over Monday and the remaining 700 plus remaining vacant spots will be filled by certified and trained school professionals or district personnel.

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