Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt is celebrating his attempts to dismantle the state's COVID-19 health protections. That mission — which has been met with dismay by health experts — got some support this week in the form of an irate cop berating a school bus driver over masks and the state treasurer warning school districts that he would not approve bond deals unless they fall in line.
Both instances show just how chaotic things have gotten in the wake of a Cole County judge's ruling
last month that found all COVID-19 orders issued by local health authorities to be unconstitutional. The legal impact of the ruling is under dispute, but that hasn't stopped Schmitt and others from using it as a cudgel to end health mandates at a time when a new variant of the virus appears to be linked to spiking case numbers
amid the holiday season.
The controversy has embroiled school districts and local governments, and, despite the legal uncertainties, it's 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 kids on her bus to wear masks. Footage of the incident, obtained by KSDK's Casey Nolen
, shows the officer arguing with the bus driver through the door.
"OK, I'm going to report you," the officer says. "You're going against the law, you know that, right?"
The bus driver begins to respond with "no," but the officer keeps going: "There’s an executive order by Eric Schmitt saying you cannot wear a mask," he says, and adds, "In the state of Missouri, you don’t have to wear a mask — it’s optional."
The bus driver responds, "OK."
Of course, as attorney general, Schmitt doesn't have the power to issue executive orders — that's the sole domain of the governor. Nevertheless, Schmitt has made it clear that he views the Cole County decision as an ironclad ruling; meanwhile, other school districts, including those in the Kansas City and St. Louis regions, maintain that the attorney general's opinion is not legally binding
and that the legislature has already given school districts the right to issue health orders.
It's not just random cops coming to the aid of Schmitt's strong-arming policy position: On Wednesday, Missourinet revealed that Missouri Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick
has quietly lent the power of his own office to advance Schmitt's pressure campaign against school districts: In a December 15 interview with reporter Alisa Nelson, Fitzpatrick confirmed that he is helping enforce Schmitt's demands by making the end of COVID-19 health orders a requirement for districts
applying for a special bond refinancing program.
Run through the treasurer's office, the program would otherwise save districts thousands, even millions of dollars over the lifetime of their bonds.
Even with the legal issues still unsettled, Fitzpatrick's involvement has created financial leverage in Schmitt's ongoing war against pandemic health orders. On Thursday, Karl Matt, the superintendent of the North Platte R-1 School District in Dearborn, told the Missouri Independent that Fitzpatrick's decision to make the district's financial future contingent on its COVID-19 protections
had taken him by surprise. Matt noted, "It's a little bit difficult to reconcile how the two things go together."
North Platte is one of four districts to agree to the treasurer's new requirement, the Missouri Independent reported Thursday. The debt refinancing will save the district $972,000. The district faced a difficult proposition: Losing out on the bond deal may have delayed improvements and forced the district to seek increased taxes to make up the shortfall.
The full price, though, includes doing away with masking and COVID-19 safety rules. Fitzpatrick has defended his actions by saying the office's bond program is entirely discretionary, and that he can make up the requirements as he sees fit — which just so happens to be in line with the goals of Missouri's AG.
As for Schmitt, his spokesperson told the Missouri Independent that he appreciates
the treasurer's tactics in obtaining compliance, and is "pleased to have Treasurer Fitzpatrick with us in this important fight."
That fight is still ongoing, but there are so many moving pieces — and so many lawyers involved — that it's not clear where they'll land. Schmitt insists the Cole County ruling is a binding order of law, but school districts like that in Lee's Summit have blasted the position as fundamentally baseless.
"You have no legal authority to direct the District to cease and desist what it is doing to mitigate COVID. You cite no such authority in your letter, because there is none," Joe Hatley, an attorney for the Lee’s Summit School District, wrote in a response letter
to Schmitt on December 10.
The letter continued, "Your invocation of 'rights' untethered to an obligation to exercise them responsibly invites lawlessness."
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at [email protected]
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