Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt celebrates his attempts to dismantle the state’s COVID-19 health protections. This mission – which was greeted with dismay by health experts – received some support this week in the form of an angry policeman berating a school bus driver for masks and the state treasurer has warned school districts that he wouldn’t approve bail agreements unless they fell online.
Both cases show just how chaotic things have become following a decision by a Cole County judge last month that found all COVID-19 orders issued by local health officials unconstitutional. The legal impact of the ruling is disputed, but that hasn’t stopped Schmitt and others from using it as a stick to end health mandates at a time when a new variant of the virus appears to be linked to a increase in the number of cases in the middle of the holiday season.
The controversy has involved school districts and local governments and, despite legal uncertainties, has already created confusion on the ground.
In the Rockwood School District, on December 10, an Arnold police officer berated a school bus driver and threatened to report her for asking the children on her bus to wear masks. Footage of the incident, obtained by Casey Nolen of the KSDK, shows the officer arguing with the bus driver through the door.
“OK, I’ll report you,” the officer said. “You’re going against the law, you know that, don’t you? ”
The bus driver begins to respond with “No”, but the officer continues: “There is a decree from Eric Schmitt saying you cannot wear a mask,” he says and adds: “In the state. from Missouri, you don’t need to wear a mask, it’s optional. ”
The bus driver replies “OK”.
UPDATE: Video of Arnold cop being confronted #Rockwood bus driver for asking children to wear masks after @Eric_Schmitt called on parents to report schools that still need it (bus masks are powered by regulation)
“There is a decree from Eric Schmitt”, he said wrongly pic.twitter.com/ykCAmfT8x6
– Casey Nolen (@CaseyNolen) December 16, 2021
Of course, as attorney general, Schmitt does not have the power to issue executive orders – it is the sole domain of the governor. Nonetheless, Schmitt made it clear that he viewed the Cole County decision as a rock-solid one; Meanwhile, other school districts, including those in Kansas City and the St. Louis area, argue that the attorney general’s opinion is not legally binding and that lawmakers have already given school districts the right to issue health orders.
It’s not just random cops coming to the aid of Schmitt’s muscular political stance: On Wednesday, the Missourinet revealed that Missouri treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick had quietly loaned the power of his own office to advance the campaign. Schmitt’s pressure on school districts: In a Dec. 15 interview with reporter Alisa Nelson, Fitzpatrick confirmed he was helping enforce Schmitt’s demands by making ending COVID-19 health orders a requirement for districts requesting a special bond refinancing program.
Executed by the treasurer’s office, the program would otherwise save districts thousands or even millions of dollars over the life of their bonds.
Even with the legal issues still unresolved, Fitzpatrick’s involvement created financial leverage in Schmitt’s ongoing war on health orders in the event of a pandemic. On Thursday, Karl Matt, the superintendent of North Platte R-1 School District in Dearborn, told the Missouri Independent that Fitzpatrick’s decision to subordinate the district’s financial future to its COVID-19 protections had taken him by surprise. Matt noted: “It’s a little difficult to reconcile how the two things go together.”
North Platte is one of four districts to agree to the new treasurer requirement, the Missouri Independent reported Thursday. Refinancing the debt will save the district $ 972,000. The district faced a difficult proposition: losing the bond agreement may have delayed improvements and forced the district to ask for a tax increase to cover the deficit.
The full price, however, includes the removal of COVID-19 masking and safety rules. Fitzpatrick has defended his actions by saying the office’s bond program is completely discretionary and can meet requirements as he sees fit, which is very much in line with the goals of the Missouri GA.
As for Schmitt, his spokesperson told the Missouri Independent he appreciated the treasurer’s tactics to achieve compliance and was “happy to have Treasurer Fitzpatrick with us in this important fight.”
This fight is still ongoing, but there are so many moving pieces – and so many lawyers involved – that it’s not clear where they will end up. Schmitt insists the Cole County ruling is a binding legal order, but school districts like Lee’s summit have called the position fundamentally baseless.
“You have no legal authority to order the district to cease and desist from what it is doing to mitigate COVID. You do not cite any such authority in your letter because there is none,” wrote Joe Hatley, attorney for Lee’s Summit School District. in a response letter to Schmitt on December 10.
The letter continued: “Your invocation of ‘rights’ unrelated to an obligation to exercise them responsibly invites anarchy.”
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. Email the author at [email protected]
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