A legal showdown between the Palm Beach County School District and the city of West Palm Beach over hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid stormwater fees now appears inevitable this summer.
The school district, now facing a July 1 deadline to pay up, formally sued the city on Friday. Both sides accuse the other of putting children in danger.
“The City’s threat creates the high likelihood of endangering the public health, safety and welfare and school closures,” wrote school district attorneys in the lawsuit, which seeks a temporary injunction against the city disconnecting at least nine public schools in West Palm Beach from the stormwater drainage system.
But city spokesman Elliot Cohen shot back Monday that it is the school district’s decision to sue that is creating public danger.
“The steps they are taking are really going down a path that could hurt children in the fall,” Cohen told The Palm Beach Post. “They are forcing the city’s hand. We have no choice now but to disconnect service.”
In a statement released Monday afternoon, the city sought to push back by alleging that the district “wants to avoid paying for service that … practically everyone else in the city pays for.”
In addition, the statement asks, “Will the district’s decision lead to a situation that impacts both school buildings and the children who use them?”
The two sides have been arguing over stormwater fees since the district stopped paying in April 2012, sticking the city with what it claims are more than $235,000 in back fees. But district general counsel Sheryl Wood has argued that legal precedent, including a 2012 state appeals court decision involving a Key West community college, gives school districts sovereign immunity from having to pay stormwater fees to municipalities.
In November, the city threatened to disconnect service from the nine schools, including the Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts, at the end of this school year.
Cohen said the city could inflate balloons in the pipes on campus to block any stormwater drainage, which school district officials have said would cause parking lots and fields at those schools to flood in heavy rainstorms. Several other schools in the city could not be blocked, Cohen said, because they share drainage pipes with adjacent non-school properties.
Last month, the city extended that threatened disconnection deadline to July 1 so both sides could try to work out a solution. Wood said the both sides met several times, but the city’s position has not changed.
She said the district asked the city to wait to take any actions until either state courts or the Legislature clarify laws regarding whether school districts have to pay stormwater fees, but the city wasn’t willing to wait.
A bill that would have required districts to pay failed to pass this year, and a similar lawsuit between the city of Ocala and Marion County School District has languished in a state appeals court for more than a year.
Wood said the district went ahead with the suit because with the city still threatening disconnection and hurricane season already under way, the district needed to ensure the safety of its personnel, students and facilities.
The district’s lawsuit argues not only is it are immune from stormwater fees but that it would cause irreparable harm to the district and to the roughly 7,400 students attending the schools in question. If the district had to keep closing those schools because of flooding next year, those students would ultimately lose classroom time and be placed at an educational disadvantage.
“The city’s threat to disconnect is tantamount to a violation or a severe undermining of the state’s constitutional mandate to make adequate provision for the education of the children of Florida,” the lawsuit states.
As an example, the lawsuit points to the May 29 closure of Park Vista High School in suburban Boynton Beach by heavy rains to show how stormwater flooding can disrupt educational time for children. Officials with the school district and Lake Worth Drainage Control District have said the Park Vista High flooding was caused by a drainage control gate that was mistakenly left closed during the storm, blocking drainage from the campus into a nearby canal.
No hearing date has been set for the injunction lawsuit yet, but Wood said the district will seek an expedited date because of the city’s looming deadline.