By JOE MUELLER
THE CENTER SQUARE STAFF REPORTER
(The Center Square) — – If public school districts are in legal disputes with Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt regarding COVID-19 health restrictions, Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick said litigation costs could prevent the districts from meeting future financial obligations.
Mr. Fitzpatrick is requiring school districts that want to participate in a low-interest bond program through his office to sign a document pledging they will follow Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green’s order on Nov. 23 stopping state and local agencies from issuing pandemic health orders. On Dec. 7, Mr. Schmitt sent a letter to all Missouri public school districts threatening legal action for any district acting contrary to Judge Green’s ruling and enforcing health restrictions, such as mask mandates or quarantines.
Six school districts on the verge of closing on the low-interest bond agreements received notification from Mr. Fitzpatrick on the new requirement, created after Mr. Schmitt’s threat of legal action. Four districts signed the agreement, according to a spokesperson in the Treasurer’s office.
“Due diligence is always done in preparation for a financial transaction and the disclosure of pending or threatened investigations or litigation is a material consideration when making the determination whether to engage in a financial transaction with any party,” Mary Compton, communications director for the Treasurer, wrote in an email to The Center Square. “The Attorney General has made clear he intends to pursue litigation against school districts who fail to adhere to the directives in his letter.”
Two districts, including Affton School District in St. Louis County, applied for the bond program but haven’t returned the compliance certificate.
“We are exploring the potential impact this could have on our district,” Erica Chandler, director of communications for the Affton School District, wrote in an email to The Center Square.
Mr. Fitzpatrick, a Republican, is running for State Auditor while Schmitt, also a Republican, is running for the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt.
While many school districts are following the order, some are following the lead of Lee’s Summit School District in questioning Mr. Schmitt’s threat of lawsuits.
“First, you have no legal authority to direct the District to cease and desist what it is doing to mitigate COVID,” wrote W. Joseph Hatley, legal counsel for Lee’s Summit R-7 School District. “You cite no such authority in your letter, because there is none.”
Mr. Hatley stated Judge Green’s ruling doesn’t apply to school districts. He also emphasized a school district’s actions aren’t dependent on any state or local health department.
“The Missouri Legislature has expressly granted local boards of education wide-ranging power to manage and govern their own affairs, power that you have no authority to interfere with,” Mr. Hatley wrote.
Some district boards of education in the St. Louis area this week voted to end mask mandates when students return to school in January or when the first semester ends in mid-January. Some school districts included stipulations in their policies to return to mask requirements based on the percentage of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19.
Mr. Schmitt’s office on Friday distributed a news release that said it received 7,500 emails to an inbox it created for complaints and photography from parents and students regarding alleged violations of mask requirements and quarantine orders. The release said the attorney general sent “52 cease and desist letters to school districts around the state” after receiving information via email.
“My Office has worked diligently to identify non-compliant school districts and send cease and desist letters to those districts,” Mr. Schmitt said in the release. “We will continue to fight these mask mandates and quarantine orders and enforce the law.”
Joe Mueller covers Missouri for The Center Square.