Miguel Cardona confirmed as U.S. Education Secretary., March 1, 2021. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Getty Images).
After state education officials docked the pay of four Alachua County school board members who voted for a strict mask mandate, the Biden administration has stepped in and awarded $147,719 to fill in the financial gap for the district.
The grant is from a new program called Project SAFE, which is intended 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.
“I’m very grateful to Mr. (Miguel) Cardona (U.S. Education Secretary), President Biden and the federal government for the funding,” Alachua Superintendent Carlee Simon said in a written statement Thursday. “But I’m even more grateful for their continued support and encouragement of our efforts to protect students and staff and to keep our schools open for in-person learning.”
Simon received the news from Secretary Cardona, himself, over the phone, according to an Alachua communications staffer. The Alachua school board is the first to receive grant funding from this program.
“We should be thanking districts for using proven strategies that will keep schools open and safe, not punishing them,” Cardona said according to a press release from the USDE. “We stand with the dedicated educators in Alachua and across the country doing the right thing to protect their school communities, and with today’s first-ever award under Project SAFE, we are further enabling educators to continue that critical work.”
The SAFE money comes at time of political chaos over mask debates in schools and who has authority over mask mandates. Gov. Ron DeSantis has said parents should decide on wearing masks for their children. But local boards, under the Florida Constitution, have control over the operations of schools.
Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has already withheld two months-worth of salaries for the four school board members who voted for the district’s current mask mandate that only allows students to opt out for a medical reason. That’s about $27,000, according to the a press release from the Alachua school district.
Alachua communications staffer Jackie Johnson told the Phoenix that the feds provided a year’s worth of pay to the school board members because it’s not yet clear how long state education officials will continue to withhold the monthly salaries.
State education officials have also sanctioned the salaries of the Broward County school board in South Florida. About 10 other districts could possibly face similar sanctions for their strict mask mandates.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is gubernatorial candidate for 2022, has been a vocal critic of DeSantis’ COVID policies. She has been communicating with the Biden administration on this front, according to a written statement Thursday.
“The fact that we are even in a situation where the federal government had to intervene due to the state punishing local elected officials for doing their jobs is quite frankly unbelievable,” Fried said.
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