A suspended school superintendent vs. the new governor in a FL Supreme Court case. Who will win?

Constitution
Excerpt from 1885 Florida Constitution. Photo edited and used with permission. Credit: State Archives of Florida.

A suspended Panhandle school superintendent is facing off with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a legal clash that involves Constitutional questions, different branches of government and the governor’s authority to suspend an elected public officer.

It’s the kind of case that DeSantis – a Harvard-trained lawyer who references the U.S. Constitution, Founding Fathers, and civics instruction – would likely enjoy, especially if he wins.

But his challenger isn’t giving up, and the case is ongoing in the Florida Supreme Court, with new documents filed earlier this week.

Mary Beth Jackson was twice elected by voters to become the Okaloosa County school superintendent. She was suspended by the governor on January 11.

Jackson had been a subject in two grand jury investigations in 2018, in connection with incidents in the district. Neither of the grand juries led to criminal charges. The second grand jury said the evidence was insufficient, though “we continue to lack confidence in her abilities to serve as Superintendent of Schools for Okaloosa County.”

The incidents related to a teacher involved in inappropriate physical conduct with special needs students that led to charges of child abuse. Other district employees were charged with failure to report suspected child abuse, according to the governor’s executive order of suspension.

“Superintendent Jackson has failed her responsibilities and duties to the parents and students of the Okaloosa County School District due to her failure to provide adequate, necessary and frequent training, a lack of supervision of school district personnel, and a failure to implement adequate safe-guards, policies, and reporting requirements to protect the safety and well-being of the students,” the executive order stated.

“Due to her clear neglect of duty and incompetence, Superintendent Jackson can no longer demonstrate the qualifications necessary to meet her duties in office,” the order stated.

On March 1, Jackson went to the Florida Supreme Court to challenge the suspension, saying the executive order outlined allegations prior to and during 2015-16, in Jackson’s first term of office and prior to her re-election.

“Governor DeSantis is without authority to suspend Superintendent Jackson for actions preceding the current term of office,” according to an emergency petition filed with the high court.

Although the law “purports to expand the authority of the Governor to suspend public officers for acts committed prior to the current term of office, the Legislature may not enact laws to expand, limit, or alter the Governor’s constitutionally derived authority, unless constitutionally permitted,” the petition noted.

“This Court should, therefore, direct the Governor of the State of Florida, to show cause why (the) Executive Order…should not be invalidated, and why Mary Beth Jackson should not be reinstated as the Superintendent of Schools of Okaloosa County, Florida.”

Late Tuesday, the governor responded, saying Jackson’s petition “misconstrues the text of the Florida Constitution addressing the Governor’s suspension authority and relies on non-binding advisory opinions that are inapplicable.”

The governor’s response also stated that the Florida Constitution makes clear that courts have a limited role in suspending and removing public officials — The governor suspends, and the Florida Senate removes or reinstates the public officer – and the court should deny Jackson’s petition.

There will be more to come on this case.

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.

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