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Florida Education Department Withholds Pay In Alachua, Broward Over Mask Mandates

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks during a bill signing ceremony at St. John the Apostle School in Hialeah in May 2021.
Wilfredo Lee
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks during a bill signing ceremony at St. John the Apostle School in Hialeah in May 2021.

The penalties were levied after a judge ruled that the governor's executive order blocking mask mandates in schools was unconstitutional. Meantime, two more districts enacted mandates without parental opt-outs.

Florida state education officials have begun to make good on threats to withhold funding from local school districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates. The move comes despite a circuit judge who last week ruled the ban unconstitutional.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced Monday that the state Department of Education has withheld an amount equal to monthly school board member salaries in Alachua and Broward counties.

The move was a penalty for the school boards requiring students to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, with exceptions only for students whose parents submit doctors’ notes.

Corcoran and DeSantis had threatened had threatened to impose financial penalties on school boards for weeks. Democratic President Joe Biden has said if that happened, federal money would be used to cover any costs.

DeSantis signed an executive order July 30 that sought to prohibit local school districts from enacting student mask mandates. The governor’s order triggered a Department of Health rule that said parents must be able to opt out of such mandates.

On Aug. 20, the Department of Education issued orders threatening to withhold funding equal to the salaries of four Alachua board members and eight Broward board members who voted for the mandates.

Corcoran’s announcement came after Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper on Friday ruled that DeSantis’ order was constitutional overreach.

Cooper issued an injunction barring Corcoran, the Department of Education and the Board of Education from enforcing the order. The health department was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, and Cooper decided he could not strike down a health department rule triggered by DeSantis’ order that said, in part, any local school mask mandates must allow parents to opt out.

It was not clear Monday evening whether the Education Department announcement about withholding funds from the Alachua and Broward districts conflicts with Cooper’s ruling.

The department did not immediately answer an email from The News Service of Florida about the issue.

In a news release Monday, the department said: “The withholding of funds will continue monthly until each school board complies with state law and rule.”

DeSantis told reporters in Jacksonville on Monday that his office plans to appeal the court ruling, although a notice of appeal had not been posted on the Leon County clerk of courts website by Monday evening.

“I think we're going to have really good grounds to appeal in terms of the first District Court of Appeal,” DeSantis said. “At the end of the day, what the Parents Bill of Rights requires, in our judgment, is that parents be given the right to opt out, if they think that's in the best interest of their kids.”

DeSantis has said he believes parents should make health decision for their children, and the Parents Bill of Rights is a new state law that served as a foundation for his executive order.

In ruling against the governor’s order, Cooper focused on wording in the law, which says the government cannot infringe on the rights of parents regarding education and health care “without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest” and that the action is narrowly tailored and not otherwise served by less restrictive means.

On Monday, Lee and Brevard counties acted on the judge’s decision, joining 10 others that already enacted mask mandates.

Lee County schools Superintendent Ken Savage enacted a mandate to require masks for all students and teachers with no opt-out, set to begin Wednesday. Bboard members met Monday night and reaffirmed the decision.

In Brevard, a school board emergency meeting was called Monday, when a mandate was reinstated that will take effect Tuesday and last 30 days.

Board Chair Misty Belford said the board had a small window of opportunity to address a “serious crisis.”

“I don’t know that masks are the silver bullet and I’m not in favor of long-term mask mandates,” Belford said. “But I do know without a doubt that what we are currently doing is not working and the options available to us to respond are incredibly limited.”

In related news, the U.S. Department of Education sent a warning to Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah that their statewide bans on mask mandates, including in schools, could violate students' civil rights.

Florida is not among the states targeted. The department says it is not at this time investigating states with similar bans because those bans are not currently being enforced, due to either court orders or other actions.

Information from News Service of Florida, the Associated Press, WJCT and WMFE was used in this report.

Health News Florida is now part of WUSF Public Media in Tampa, Florida.