White House may aid local school officials whose pay gets docked over mask policies

School superintendents have the most to lose, but local board members also could be targeted

By: - August 10, 2021 5:31 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis and New College of Florida’s interim president Richard Corcoran at a Board of Education meeting July 14, 2021. The picture was taken when Corcoran was the education commissioner. Credit: Danielle J. Brown

As the DeSantis administration threatens to strip salaries of local school officials who buck the governor’s masking policy for children, the Biden administration indicated it might step in to restore those paychecks with federal money.

Meanwhile, critics of Gov. Ron DeSantis suggest that if anyone deserves to have his pay docked, it is the governor.

“Our governor has continued to ignore science, and he’s continued to ignore other issues within our state, including the broken unemployment system,” Anna Eskamani, of Orange County, told the Phoenix during a phone interview.

“I think the governor should withhold his salary until every person gets paid their benefits.”

Even outsiders reacting to news about docking pay for local Florida officials led to a Twitter post:

“If I was a Florida resident I would want to withhold @RonDeSantisFL salary until he did something about the rampant spread in his state. #FloridaCovid,” a New Yorker tweeted.

This is not the first time political leaders targeted the pocketbooks of public officials: In 2019, Democratic state Rep. Geraldine Thompson of Orange County threatened to file legislation to force school officials to enforce a state law mandating the teaching of African American history.

The dispute between the Republican governor and local school officials heated up Tuesday as classes resumed in much of the state. DeSantis pushed the Florida Department of Education and Department of Health on Friday to adopt rules giving parents the right to opt out of mask wearing inside school buildings.

Most districts have reluctantly acceded to the rules, requiring kids to wear masks but offering opt-outs at the request of parents or guardians. Broward County school officials voted Tuesday to mandate masks and if necessary challenge DeSantis in court.

State Sen. Gary Farmer issued a written statement praising the vote.

“By standing up to the bully in the Governor’s Mansion like they did today, the Broward County School Board set a shining example for our kids. They sent the message that no person no matter how loud or powerful they are, can intimidate them out of standing up for what is right,” Farmer wrote.

“I am sure that after this the governor will lash out in anger as he usually does,” he continued, adding: “The governor has no authority to enforce his dangerous and politically motivated orders, and I am confident that the orders and any retaliatory action that he may take will not hold up in court.

Districts in Alachua and Leon Counties plan to require doctor notes to qualify for an opt-out.

In a letter to policymakers in those counties, Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran viewed that as insufficient deference to parental autonomy. He cited their “significant neglect” in responding to the new rules and said he was opening a formal investigation into the two districts.

“I an demanding that you provide a written response by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 11, documenting how your district is complying” with the rules. “Any failure to adequately document and substantiate full compliance with this rule will result in sanctions permitted under law,” he wrote.

“Depending on the facts presented, I may recommend to the State Board of Education that the department withhold funds in an amount equal to the salaries for the superintendent and all the members of the school board.”

Asked about that possible sanction during a White House press briefing, Biden spokeswoman Jen Psaki praised “the courage and boldness” of local officials resisting the governor’s policy.

Psaki noted that federal American Rescue Plan money intended to help Florida schools respond to COVID remains largely unspent by state officials.

“The question is, why not? And those can be used to cover expenses that come up in this period of time. They’re federal funds and they’re under federal discretion, so they just need to be distributed to these schools. We’re looking into what’s possible,” she said.

“Certainly, paying for salaries is a part of that — or it could be a part of that and could cover those needs for these officials,” Psaki said.

Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried, a candidate in the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial primary, praised the offer.

“My office and I have been working with the White House to find ways to support school districts that have had their funding threatened by our governor’s unconstitutional effort to prohibit them from following public health guidelines,” Fried said in a written statement.

U.S. House member Charlie Crist, also in the primary, remarked about the development on Twitter.

“Our governor is embarrassing us. Our president is leading us. Help is on the way Florida. I’m so grateful to President Biden and the local leaders standing strong against Gov DeSantis’ tyranny and disinformation,” Crist wrote.

Democrats in the Florida Senate, meanwhile, offered to set up a GoFundMe account.

“If the governor chooses to defund public education and withhold salaries from educators as punishment for protecting students’ health and safety, we will fill the gap to support them in this fight,” caucus leader Lauren Book, also from Broward County, said in a written statement.

“Masks work, and locally elected leaders have a right to apply CDC guidance to keep kids safe at school. We stand with school leaders across the state who refuse to let our children become political pawns in the governor’s partisan game,” Senator Janet Cruz of Hillsborough County said.

The average salary for school superintendents in Florida is $163,532, according to Department of Education records for 2020-21.

That’s higher than DeSantis’ salary of $134,181, according to current data from the state.

Overall, average superintendent salaries in 2020-21 range from $65,534 in Glades school district in southwest Florida to $374,365 for Miami-Dade. In between, Alachua’s average superintendent salary is $160,000 and Leon County’s is $148,346.

Education Commissioner Corcoran’s salary is listed as $284,280, in state data.

In Miami-Dade County, where schools will open on Aug. 23, officials were also dubious about the governor’s policy but have yet to adopt a policy.

Carvalho did release a written statement to the local CBS News affiliate.

“We have established a process that requires consultation with experts in the areas of public health and medicine. We will follow this process, which has served us well, and then make a final decision. At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck; a small price to pay considering the gravity of this issue and the potential impact to the health and well-being of our students and dedicated employees,” Carvalho said.

He also remarked Tuesday on Twitter: “Threat-laced humiliation has not served and will not serve humanity well.”

Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, decried the threats.

“Florida school board members make decisions every day in the best interests of their students, and we reject the implication that decisions may be made on anything other than that. Board members to not make decisions regarding public health lightly, and they will continue to make the decision that they believe is right for their students, staff, schools, and their local communities,” Messina said in a telephone interview.

“It has nothing to do with their salaries.”

Leon County’s policy mandates masks indoors for kids in Pre-K through 8th grade “unless otherwise noted by a physician or a psychologist that the child has a health condition, and there is a health reason as to why they really should not be wearing a mask in school,” Superintendent Rocky Hanna announced on Monday.

He said he planned to revisit the matter before Labor Day.

Hanna said he feared that a student would wind up in the hospital or dead from COVID.

“If there’s an out and I didn’t take the out, and I didn’t do what was best for children here in Tallahassee and Leon County, that’s on me.”

During her White House briefing, Psaki reiterated a point President Biden has made before in reference to DeSantis.

“If you’re not interested in following the public health guidelines, to protect the lives of people in your state, to give parents some comfort as they’re sending their kids to school — schools are opening in Florida this week, I know, in many parts of Florida — then get out of the way and let local officials do their job to keep students safe. This is serious and we’re talking about people’s lives,” she said.

Here’s a list from the Department of Education showing average superintendent salaries from 2020-21:

MIAMI-DADE 374,365
BROWARD 356,201
ORANGE 347,615
PINELLAS 308,993
PALM BEACH 306,168
DUVAL 275,000
COLLIER 268,483
SEMINOLE 247,997
POLK 238,000
BREVARD 216,720
SARASOTA 215,000
MARION 210,000
LEE 209,000
OSCEOLA 207,532
VOLUSIA 205,000
MANATEE 204,918
ST. LUCIE 198,119
LAKE 195,000
SUWANNEE 173,717
MARTIN 169,999
MONROE 168,600
HERNANDO 168,000
ST. JOHNS 165,000
ALACHUA 160,000
ESCAMBIA 160,000
PASCO 158,992
SUMTER 154,598
LEON 148,246
CLAY 142,260
OKALOOSA 142,148
SANTA ROSA 138,565
BAY 137,120
FLAGLER 135,000
CITRUS 134,721
WAKULLA 130,819
PUTNAM 130,661
NASSAU 126,460
COLUMBIA 124,971
WALTON 122,040
HENDRY 121,146
GADSDEN 118,296
HARDEE 118,229
JACKSON 116,693
BAKER 115,202
LEVY 114,614
DESOTO 112,676
BRADFORD 109,956
TAYLOR 107,664
HOLMES 106,777
MADISON 106,601
GULF 106,211
DIXIE 105,510
UNION 105,102
HAMILTON 104,769
FRANKLIN 103,913
LIBERTY 102,623
CALHOUN 100,378
GLADES 64,534

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.