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POLK COUNTY – On April 28, Polk County Public Schools Attorney Wes Bridges announced a recent $20 million settlement offer from insurance companies providing hurricane coverage during Hurricane Irma in 2017.

The Polk County School Board voted unanimously to accept the settlement offer.

Bridges explained that many of the 2,000 or so Polk County Public Schools buildings were damaged during the hurricane, that the school board had $50 million in hurricane coverage, and that initially the insurance companies only offered around $94,000 to cover hurricane-related repairs.

Many of the policies were underwritten by Lloyd's of London. Nine insurance companies are listed in the settlement approved last week.

For the past two years, Bridges said that attorneys representing the school board have been fighting the insurance companies. Prior to the settlement offer, insurance companies had paid out around $600,000 in claims.

Attorneys representing the school board get 25 percent of the settlement if a judge signs off on it.

Two school board contractors who did some initial work are claiming a $3 million lien on the settlement, alleging that the school board owes them for unpaid work. Bridges said that allegation will be fought in court before the legal case is resolved.

Polk County School Board member Kay Fields congratulated Bridges and his legal team, going on to say that a $20 million settlement would be the largest ever in Polk County School Board history.

Minutes before the school board voted on the matter, two anonymous emails were sent to the school board and read into the public record, both alleging that around $200 million worth of damage was done by Hurricane Irma and that the school board should not settle the case for $20 million.

Jonathan Stidham is one of the attorneys who has been working on the case for the past year-and-a-half. Stidham and Bridges suspected the emails were part of a ploy to try and convince the school board to settle for more money.

“It's a great big amount and it's high stakes,” Bridges said. “When the stakes are this high and the dollars are this big it appears things come out of the woodpile.”

Bridges said Hurricane Irma damaged many buildings but there is no evidence that there was hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage. He called the settlement a good deal because it would cost millions to take the case to trial.

Bridges said any funds received from the settlement would be unrestricted, meaning the school board could spend the money on anything.

Teachers contract ratified

After Polk County Public Schools teachers voted to turn down a proposed union contract in December, school staff and union representatives subsequently met three times to collectively bargain.

On March 18, 72 percent of teachers voted to approve the revised contract. On April 28, the Polk County School Board unanimously voted to ratify the annual contract.

Teachers agreed to a pay freeze this year to offset costs associated with rising health care claims. In exchange, union representatives were able to negotiate for more autonomy and time for teachers to do lesson planning.