John Palmerini – Orange County Public Schools
As the number of violent incidents at public schools has increased over the past decade, many states, counties and districts have taken steps to avoid such tragic events.
The devastating 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School led to the Florida Legislature passing and the governor signing a public safety act. Through this, the Florida Department of Education created the Office of Safe Schools.
The primary goals of the OSS are to prevent, intervene and provide emergency preparedness planning. As deputy general counsel for Orange County Public Schools since 2021, John Palmerini ensures Florida’s fourth largest school district is adhering to all OSS rules and regulations.
He’s a strong proponent of OSS’ work and believes each stipulation is meant to protect OCPS’ faculty, staff and nearly 210,000 students attending over 200 schools. Two of those students are his, a son who attends OCPS’ Apopka High School and a daughter who’s at Wolf Lake Middle School. So, he tries to strictly adhere to the rules the office sets forth.
The OSS requires public schools to have a safe-school officer, someone trained to handle a firearm during an emergency. In a particular instance, one of OCPS’ charter schools didn’t have a backup officer when the one on duty called in sick. According to Palmerini, because it’s a charter school, it’s under a separate governing board from the rest of OCPS, making it difficult for him and his team to prevent and rectify such matters. Still, he worked with OCPS staff to ensure the school had an officer on campus within three hours.
When OSS expressed displeasure, he assured them he and the OCPS staff made certain the school hired a backup security guard—and reminded OSS state regulations allow 24 hours to rectify the issue he resolved in three, despite it being outside of OCPS obligations.
“I tell the people working at OSS all the time that I want the campuses to be just as safe as they do,” Palmerini says. “Whether I’m working on something for students or the faculty and staff, I always set the best interests of those at OCPS as my top priority.”
Legal laboring for laborers
Most of Palmerini’s work relates to labor and employment matters. Drawing on 20 years of specialized experience, he’s currently navigating laws and litigation related to teacher unions in Florida.
Advising the school board, he’s helping manage the fallout from the 2023 litigation challenging the law the legislature passed and Gov. DeSantis signed. The 2023 law states a union without 60 percent membership will be decertified.
OCPS deducts union dues from teacher’s paychecks and sends them to the union. On June 6, the state of Florida told public employers, including OCPS, they need to inform all teachers these deductions will soon cease.
In response, Palmerini worked with the school board staff to draft the notification letter, which as of June 13, 2023, had not yet been sent. He’s also prepared staff for next steps, such as stopping deductions, if the courts don’t issue an injunction.
“The laws have changed quickly and in a very short time span,” Palmerini says. “Helping our staff keep up has been a challenge, but we’re well prepared to meet all requirements.”
In that vein, he also assists district staff with labor negotiations between teachers’ unions and the district superintendent. The most recent notable issues were three impasses on wages and healthcare between 2020 and 2023 due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. He tried as lead counsel the three full impasse hearings that lasted two days, each in front of special magistrates.
One matter was quickly resolved, with OCPS complying within a matter of weeks through releasing its health and safety memorandum, outlining measures regarding personal protective equipment and distancing—and a timeline for implementation. In the other two cases, either the teachers’ unions or the OCPS school board didn’t agree with the magistrate recommendations on wages and work conditions. Palmerini represented the district superintendent in the follow up hearings before the school board and was able to settle the issues in 2022.
“At OCPS, we all share the same vision to create the most supportive, welcoming and safest environments for our staff, teachers and students,” Palmerini says. “My job is to make that process as smooth as possible.”
An education and work ethic spanning generations
No matter how complicated or challenging, Palmerini is passionate about every task that crosses his desk. He knows firsthand the positive impact OCPS can have on communities and people’s lives.
As a child, he was a student at the district’s Zellwood Elementary School, Apopka Memorial Middle School and Apopka High School, where his son is about to begin his junior year. His family has also been working with the school district since the 1980s.
His grandmother, Jill Hart, worked for the school district as a paraprofessional and teacher for over 25 years. His mother, Denise Palmerini, recently retired after 35 years as an OCPS school secretary, while his wife, Angie Palmerini, continues her tenure as a teacher in the district for over 22 years.
He does a little teaching as well, conducting training for staff and teachers across OCPS on union representation, progressive discipline, handling religious and leave issues as well as sexual and workplace harassment. He’s also been a guest speaker for the Florida School Boards Association, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, the Florida Association of Instructional Leaders and the Florida Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.
Palmerini, who earned a bachelor’s in journalism and political science in 1998 then his J.D. in 2002 from the University of Florida, has worked at OCPS since 2010. In 2022, the Florida School Board Attorneys Association recognized him as its C. Graham Carothers Award of Excellence winner; this honor is given to Florida School Board attorneys, recognizing their contribution to the advancement of school law and the legal profession.
“My career path landing here at OCPS seems almost inevitable now,” Palmerini tells Vanguard with a laugh. “It felt like coming home, and I have loved every moment since.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Summer IV 2023 Edition here.
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