Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in May. Credit: Screenshot, Florida Channel.
The Florida Board of Education will withhold money equal to the salaries of local school board members from districts in Alachua and Broward counties over their tough mask mandates for students, which state officials say violate Florida law.
“We cannot have government officials pick and choose what laws they want to follow,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said in a written statement Friday.
The move comes days after the State Board of Education interrogated the Alachua and Broward superintendents about their mask mandates, which allow students to opt out for medical reasons only.
These dispute centers on the question: Under the Florida Constitution, who has ultimate authority over how schools operate during a pandemic — the state or the local school board? The Constitution says students are entitled a “safe, secure” public education and authorizes local school boards to “operate, control, and supervise all free public schools within the school district.”
The state is attempting to enforce Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order and a Department of Health rule, which both invoke Florida’s Parental Bill of Rights, that leave decisions on masking completely up to parents’ discretion. The governor insists masks are inappropriate for small children.
Unless the school boards notify the state within 48 hours that they are backing down, “the Department of Education will then begin to withhold from state funds, on a monthly basis, an amount equal to 1/12 of the total annual compensation of the school board members who voted to impose the unlawful mask mandates until each district demonstrates compliance,” state officials said.
The department ordered the districts to provide “information confirming the current annual compensation provided to all school board members.”
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona responded by calling school officials in the two counties “to reassure them that the president and his administration stand with them and with all educators who put student and staff health and education first” and was willing to send federal money, he said in a written statement.
“It is deeply troubling to see state leaders putting politics ahead of the health and safety of our students, and that instead of supporting our educators for doing the right thing, state leaders are trying to punish them,” he said.
“Let me reiterate: we stand ready to assist any district facing repercussions for imposing CDC-recommended COVID-19 prevention strategies that will protect the health and safety of students, educators, and staff.”
According to data from Florida’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, as of September 2020 (the data haven’t been updated yet for the new school year), Alachua’s school board are each paid $40,287 a year.
Four members of Alachua’s school board voted on the matter, as there was a vacancy on the five-member board. DeSantis filled the vacancy on Wednesday and it is not clear how the new board member will be affected.
Broward’s nine school board members were paid $46,773, according to the September data.
The order says the districts may not “reduce any expenditures other than those related to compensation for school board members.”
“These are the initial consequences to their intentional refusal to follow state law and state rule to purposefully and willingly violate the rights of parents,” Corcoran said in a written statement. “This is simply unacceptable behavior.”
Additional sanctions are possible to “bring each school district into compliance with state law and rule,” the order says. The state board members previously floated removing local board members from their positions, which is potentially still on the table.
With COVID cases are surging in Florida, there are no vaccines approved for students under the age of 12 and some schools have closed due to COVID outbreaks and exposure. Options for temporary distance learning are fewer this year, compared to those offered by districts last year, making learning from home less accessible for students having to quarantine.
The Sarasota County school district, which allows parents to choose whether their child should be masked, was set to re-evaluate its policy Friday afternoon,
Nikki Fried, the state’s Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services and a candidate in next year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, has been a vocal critic of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic.
She tweeted Friday: “Defunding our schools to make them less safe is unconscionable and unconstitutional. We are reaching out to the White House and legal counsel right now.”
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden instructed Cardona to “assess all available tools in taking action” to ensure that “governors and other officials are taking all appropriate steps to prepare for a safe return to school for our nation’s children, including not standing in the way of local leaders making such preparations.”
Trial opens Monday in Leon County Circuit Court in a lawsuit filed by parents with children in public schools who allege that DeSantis exceeded his authority in imposing his masks-optional policy on local school boards.
Note: This story has been updated to include Cardona’s written statement.
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