January 14, 2023

By Annelise Hanshaw
The Missouri Independent

The Lee’s Summit R-VII School District spent $72,824 last year fighting the Missouri Attorney General’s office.

It is the last district standing in an onslaught of civil suits former Attorney General Eric Schmitt brought against school districts who enforced mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly all the lawsuits were dismissed, most at the request of the attorney general. Schmitt — who left office last week after he was sworn into the U.S. Senate — tried to drop the suit against Lee’s Summit as well. But the district had already filed a countersuit seeking to establish the extent of the attorney general’s authority over local school districts.

There are no hearings yet on the case calendar as filings ping pong between sides.

Chuck Hatfield, a longtime Jefferson City attorney who previously served in the attorney general’s office under Democrat Jay Nixon, said the case could establish an important precedent.

“The biggest issue that Lee’s Summit is getting at is, do we or do we not have the authority to control our own district?” he said. “That’s what they’re really trying to get to, and they want the court to tell them.”

It’s unusual, Hatfield said, for the attorney general to sue or issue orders to another government entity, and the countersuit has the ability to guide whether it may happen more in the future.

“This is about mask mandates,” he said. “Next time it might be transgender athletes.”

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Andrew Bailey, who replaced Schmitt, did not respond to a request for comment.

The “Independent” filed requests under Missouri’s Sunshine Law to the 47 districts targeted by the Jan. 21 lawsuits asking for invoices of attorney fees relating to fending off the litigation.

Of the districts who responded, many had insurance that covered their costs.

Costs for without insurance or in-house counsel ranged from $126 in the Holden R-III School District to $23,965 in the Special School District of St. Louis County.

Lee’s Summit’s expenses vastly exceeded other districts sued by Schmitt as the only defendant to file a countersuit.

Schmit filed the original lawsuit against the Lee’s Summit district a year ago, arguing that school districts did not have the authority to issue health mandates.

The lawsuit contends masking as prevention “has no empirical or rational basis” despite studies connecting community mask wearing to a reduction in COVID-19’s spread. Schmitt rejects those studies, calling them “unreliable” and suggests “mask wearing may even be counterproductive in preventing the spread of disease.”

A study of schools in two Arizona counties concluded that schools without mask mandates were 3.5 times more likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak.This data was publicized by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control in October 2021.

The Attorney General’s office argued the district should not have a mask mandate, but a group of Kansas City-area physicians urged the district and others in the area to enforce masking during the 2021-2022 school year.

Lee’s Summit filed a counterclaim against the attorney general’s office last February. It contends Schmitt’s office did not have the authority to order the district to end its mask mandate and only filed his lawsuit to boost his campaign for U.S. Senate.

With the original lawsuit by the attorney general’s office dismissed, only a counterclaim by the district remains.

“Unless checked by the courts, the attorney general will feel further emboldened to intrude into matters that are reserved by Missouri law to locally elected school boards. To that end, the board is committed to defending its authority,” Joseph Hatley, an attorney representing the district, wrote in a Feb. 18, 2022, filing in the case.

Both the school district and the attorney general’s office declined comment on the litigation.

In its countersuit, the district argues a Dec. 7, 2021, letter from the attorney general ordering an end to the mask mandate was used as a weapon of intimidation against teachers and administrators by some parents who disagreed with the policy. Meanwhile, Schmitt posted his efforts on social media and encouraged parents to report districts that did not follow his order.

The counterclaim also points to actions by Missouri Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick, who made school districts certify their compliance with Schmitt’s demand before completing bond issues.

The attorney general’s office believes Lee’s Summit is not eligible for injunctive relief since the district has suspended its mask mandate and was not planning on refinancing with the help of the treasurer’s office.

“Speculation that someday the district might seek to issue bonds, that another global pandemic might be occurring at the same time, that the district might have in place policies that whoever is then attorney general might believe violate state law, that whoever is then attorney general might send another cease-and-desist letter to the district, and that whoever is then state treasurer might require the district to certify compliance with the letter as a condition for issuing bonds is plainly insufficient to establish that the district is in ‘immediate danger’ of injury,” wrote James Atkins, general counsel in the attorney general’s office.

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Marco Roldan has not granted nor denied either request for summary judgment.

A trial date is not scheduled. Roldan’s latest action was denial of the attorney general’s office’s request for records from the district – records the district said were unrelated to the suit that pertained to topics such as critical race theory, school curriculum and “gender identity issues.”

Roldan also denied the attorney general’s request to dismiss the countersuit.