Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. Credit, Screenshot, Florida Channel.
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has determined that at least 10 local school boards with strict mask mandates have violated Florida law and rules, and wants to dock pay from more boards, plus withhold more money — a new punishment.
That punishment be related to federal grants from the Biden administration.
Right now, the Biden administration has provided federal grants to local school board members whose salaries have been taken away by state education officials related to mask mandates.
But Corcoran wants to withhold “state funds in an amount equal to any federal grant funds” awarded to districts for not complying with DeSantis administration mask policies that say parents should determine if their students wear masks, not local school boards.
That would include not only withholding school board member salaries but also withholding state funds intending to backfill those salaries. So far, Alachua and Broward school districts have gotten federal grants to supplant what state officials took away.
The Florida Phoenix reached out to the U.S. Department of Education about the issue, but has not yet responded.
In letters sent to the State Board of Education members, Corcoran determined that school districts that do not allow students to opt-out of mask mandates through the sole discretion of their parents are breaking an emergency rule from the Florida Department of Health and a law related to parents’ rights at schools.
The State Board of Education will meet Thursday to go over the issues and approve or disapprove on how to proceed.
Corcoran said: “Should the State Board adopt my recommendation, I request that it consider the sanction of withholding state funds in an amount equal to 1/12 of all school board members’ salaries, as well as withholding state funds in an amount equal to any federal grant funds awarded…” for not complying with DeSantis administration’s mask policies.
Of concern, the Florida Constitution authorizes school boards to oversee the operation of their public schools. At issue is the control of schools. Are local boards in charge, or the executive branch, meaning the DeSantis administration and the State Department of Education.
The Phoenix reached out to the school districts with mask policies that Corcoran believes are not complying with state rules on masking students.
“We’re always concerned when funds are withheld from public education, but we’re particularly concerned about the state interfering with federal funding,” Alachua Superintendent Carlee Simon said in a written statement to the Phoenix. “This will almost certainly have to be settled in court.”
The Alachua County school district was the first in the country to receive funds from the new Project SAFE grant, established by the Biden administration and intending to financially support school boards that implement COVID prevention methods recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC, but have been penalized for doing so.
In late September, the U.S. Department of Education announced that Alachua would receive some $147,700 to fill in the financial gap for the district from this grant.
The USDE also awarded the Broward County School District in South Florida with grant money from the federal Project SAFE – almost $421,000, according to the district website. According to the Broward school district’s website, state officials have already withheld some $70,160 as of Sept. 28.
Chris Petley, communications staffer with the Leon County School District in the state capital, told the Phoenix that the district didn’t “have a reaction” to the new development.
“The meeting is on Thursday, and nothing surprises us anymore,” Petley said.
Communication staffers from the school districts of Brevard and Palm Beach counties said that they are withholding comments until after the Thursday state board meeting occurs.
The Orange County school district declined to comment on the development.
The Phoenix is waiting on responses from Broward, Duval Hillsborough and Sarasota.
Florida Education Association Andrew Spar, president of the statewide teacher union, said that the “political theater” is not helping Florida students.
“What would help our students is releasing the federal relief dollars that are intended for school districts,” Spar said in a written comment to the Phoenix.
“The state is sitting on billions in federal money and may leave another $2.3 billion on the table. Meanwhile, students are losing out.” The Phoenix has written extensively over the months about the $2.3-billion, and other unused federal dollars.
Spar is referring to billions in unused federal funds allocated to help Florida schools recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the course of three federal COVID relief efforts, Florida schools have been earmarked for some $15 billion to be used over the next few years to address issues brought on from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of that total $15 billion, $2.3 billion will not be released until the Florida Department of Education sends in a plan to the USDE on how the state plans to use some of those federal COVID relief funds.
Florida is the only state not to send in a plan, and is several months late in doing so.
Ian Rosenblum, Acting Assistant Secretary for Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the USDE, sent a letter to Corcoran Monday requesting a status update on the state plan, which was originally due on June 7.
“FDOE did not meet this deadline,” Rosenblum said in the letter, “nor did it meet the July and August submission timelines that were anticipated following conversations with your staff.”
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