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State Targets School Officials' Pay in Mask Battle

State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran
State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran

If local officials don't comply, the state will withhold district funds in amounts equal to the collective monthly salaries of the school board members.

The State Board of Education on Friday followed up on its threat to financially penalize local school officials who impose student mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic, detailing how it is targeting salaries of school board members in Alachua and Broward counties.

State board Chairman Tom Grady and Vice Chairman Ben Gibson signed orders that gave the two districts 48 hours to reverse course on requiring parents to submit doctors’ notes to opt out of mask mandates. If local officials don't comply, the state will withhold district funds in amounts equal to the collective monthly salaries of the school board members.

The orders said Alachua and Broward officials violated a state Department of Health rule that requires parents to be allowed to opt out of student mask mandates. The rule was triggered by a July 30 executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis seeking to block such mandates.

The orders also said the districts broke a new state law known as the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” that deals with parents’ ability to control health and education decisions for their children.

“It is important to remember that this issue is about ensuring local school board members, elected politicians, follow the law. These public officials have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Florida. We cannot have government officials pick and choose what laws they want to follow,” state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said in a news release announcing the orders Friday.

But Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, quickly condemned the orders.

“Every single Floridian regardless of political affiliation should be upset by this decision to withhold taxpayer dollars for public education over local education leaders’ enforcement of national health guidelines clearly intended to meet their most important constitutional obligation to all citizens, which is protecting their health, safety and welfare --- and that certainly includes children,” Book said in a prepared statement.

School boards in Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties this week joined Alachua and Broward in approving similar mask mandates. The orders Friday did not address Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.

The orders made clear that the financial penalties are aimed at the salaries of officials who voted for the mandates and that funding for such things as programs and services for students should not be dinged.

“In complying with this order, the School District of Alachua County may not reduce any expenditures other than those related to compensation for school board members. Further, the School District of Alachua County may not permit the reduction of funds based upon this order to impact student services or teacher pay,” the order directed at Alachua County said.

Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon, while being questioned by the state board during a meeting Tuesday, argued that her district is fulfilling duties laid out in the state Constitution that require providing a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality system” of public schools. The districts have moved forward with mask mandates as Florida has faced a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations because of the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.

“We argue that we are exercising our constitutional responsibilities to protect our students and staff. We believe this is ‘reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest,’” Simon told the state board, quoting from a part of Florida law.

But Corcoran, in his statement Friday, said financial penalties are just a first step.

The orders also require the Alachua and Broward school districts to report “enforcement of the unlawful face covering” mandates on students. The districts are directed to disclose to the state “instances of a student being sent home, reassigned, disciplined, suspended, isolated, stigmatized, warned or harassed” for not following mask policies.

“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. This is simply unacceptable behavior,” Corcoran said.

During a meeting of the state board Tuesday, Grady floated the idea of removing school officials from their posts if they don’t comply with the state’s directives on mask mandates. The board had not followed through on the threat as of Friday.

The effort by DeSantis, Corcoran and other state officials to prevent mask mandates has drawn criticism from President Joe Biden’s administration.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona discussed the issue Friday when he appeared on “The Florida Roundup” show on Miami public-radio station WLRN. Cardona said he spoke to Corcoran “maybe a week and a half ago” and had “a good conversation” where the two agreed that vaccinations are a good way to fight COVID-19 spread in schools.

“I think where we disagree is that the use of mitigation strategies to help prevent community spread will also help keep our schools open. And we’re seeing that in communities across the country that are less likely to use mitigation strategies --- we’re seeing more community spread, and we know that leads to school closures,” Cardona said on the program.

Cardona wrote in a letter to Florida school superintendents last week that the department “stands with you” in enacting universal student mask policies despite the state’s efforts to prohibit them.

Biden on Wednesday said the federal government could use money from the American Rescue Plan Act stimulus law to pay salaries of local school officials who are penalized because of requiring masks in schools.

“As I’ve said before, if you aren’t going to fight COVID-19, at least get out of the way of everyone else who is trying,” Biden said, according to a White House transcript of his remarks. “You know, we’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children.”

Meanwhile, a Leon County circuit judge is scheduled to start a hearing Monday in a lawsuit filed by parents who contend that DeSantis’ July 30 order violates the state Constitution.

Charles Gallagher, an attorney representing the parents, called DeSantis’ order “executive overreach” and characterized the lawsuit as seeking to allow county school districts to have “their own fate in their own hands” and enact mask policies.

“We don’t seek relief in this case to have any reforming or revision of that order. We seek to have the executive overreach in this order checked and declared unconstitutional,” Gallagher said Thursday.