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State asks judge to toss lawsuit over teacher bonuses

TALLAHASSEE --- The Florida Department of Education on Wednesday asked a Tallahassee judge to toss a lawsuit that seeks to have the state pay money to teachers that school districts deducted from bonuses.

The lawsuit, filed last month, accused state officials of improperly instructing school districts to deduct employer taxes from teacher bonus awards granted under the “Best and Brightest” program.

But, arguing that the U.S. Internal Revenue Service has “exclusive jurisdiction over disputes related to the withholding of federal taxes,” Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office told Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper that the state would not be able to provide any relief in the matter.

State education officials lack the authority to hire or compensate teachers, a power that is left up to local school districts, Moody's office, which represents the education department, argued. 

“Accordingly, if it was an error to deduct federal payroll taxes from awards, the error was made by the districts,” Senior Assistant Attorney General Karen Brodeen wrote in a 21-page motion filed Wednesday.

“The districts are indispensable parties in a lawsuit challenging their actions. Because the failure to join the districts precluded a full determination of the rights of all interested parties, the complaint must be dismissed,” Brodeen added.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of former Orange County elementary school teacher Chris Alianiello, alleges that education officials wrongly directed school districts to pay teachers less than the award amount provided in state law, under the controversial “Best and Brightest” teacher bonus program.

Under Florida law, the teacher bonus program lays out specific award amounts that the education department must distribute to each school district. 

The program has three different bonus categories for teachers and principals who are rated as “highly effective” or “effective.” Educators can earn up to $6,000 for the awards.

The lawsuit, filed by Ryan Morgan of the Orlando-based Morgan & Morgan law firm, cites a January 2018 email that the Florida Department of Education sent to school-district finance officers as evidence that state officials improperly told school districts they could deduct taxes from the award amount. The email said “districts may subtract any employer portion of applicable payroll taxes and mandatory payroll expenses” when paying bonuses to teachers and principals.

But, in Wednesday’s motion to dismiss the case, the state said school districts made the final decisions about whether to deduct any taxes from the bonuses.

“Although the department’s memoranda did state that the Districts may subtract federal payroll taxes from the amounts received under the program, the districts ultimately determined what federal payroll taxes to withhold,” the state argued in Wednesday’s motion.

While they may be dissatisfied with the education department’s “permissive guidance,” the plaintiffs failed to “articulate a legal theory that would impose liability on the department for such guidance,” Brodeen wrote.

“Dismissal is required for this reason alone,” she argued.

Alianiello alleges that the school district deducted hundreds of dollars from three bonuses he received in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years.

During a press conference last month, Morgan said he planned to seek class-action status in the lawsuit for thousands of Florida public school teachers whose bonuses were reduced because of the taxes.

Morgan estimates that more than 100,000 teachers are owed between $25 million and $30 million for losses over the past two years.

Since filing the lawsuit, Morgan’s team has been retained by “hundreds of teachers/former teachers,” according to Leslie Patterson, a spokeswoman for the law firm.

The “Best and Brightest” program has been a flashpoint for the Florida Legislature, with Democratic lawmakers siding with teachers who maintain they would rather receive salary increases than one-time bonuses.

Since the program was created in 2015, it has also been enmeshed with other controversy, including concerns about awards being tied to teachers’ ACT or SAT college-entrance exams.

The test-score requirement led the state to settle a separate lawsuit with the union representing Florida teachers. The Florida Education Association argued that black and Hispanic teachers were discriminated against because the program tied payout to their old scores. State lawmakers eliminated the requirement during the 2019 legislative session, which ended in May.

From The News Service of Florida