DeSantis now backs taking $200 million from schools that mandated masks

Orlando Sentinel | By Skyler Swisher and Leslie Postal | February 15, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis now supports a plan to withhold $200 million in funding from 12 school districts that mandated masks because of the pandemic, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

DeSantis is on board after discussions with state Rep. Randy Fine, who is proposing the budget measure, Press Secretary Christina Pushaw wrote in an email.

“The governor has been clear that he doesn’t want to take away any funding from students or teachers,” she wrote. “He is on board with the FEFP [Florida Education Finance Program] adjustment following discussions with Rep. Fine. The fines in this proposal would only impact administrators making $100k+, who were actually making the political decisions to force-mask children.”

On Friday, DeSantis said he would not support the idea, which has drawn complaints from the school districts and Democrats.

“My view would be let’s not do that,” DeSantis said during an appearance in Jackson County, when asked about Fine’s proposal. “But what you could do is say any parent whose kid was illegally force-masked this year in Florida in any of those districts, they should have the right to sue if their kids have any negative effects … They flouted the law and they should be liable for the consequences of their actions.”

DeSantisremains committed to the idea of a private right of action for parents to sue if they think school mask mandates harmed their children, Pushaw said.

Fine, a Brevard County Republican, said on the House floor the governor is now supporting his proposal.

Orange County Public Schools could lose $16.5 million if Fine’s measure were adopted. Two-thirds of the money would come from South Florida. Miami-Dade could lose $72 million, Broward $32 million and Palm Beach County $28 million.

The amount each district would lose would be based on how many administrators are earning more than $100,000. OCPS school leaders said they have 92 such positions.

They have called Fine’s proposal unfair, unprecedented and possibly unconstitutional.

They and other school leaders said they enacted mask mandates in good faith as a way to keep students and staff safe during the surge in COVID-19 cases that coincided with August school openings. They noted both national and local medical experts recommended masks in schools as the delta variant led to a sharp increase in cases and hospitalizations.

In a letter to lawmakers sent last week, OCPS leaders noted that even when masks were optional at the start of the school year, more than 90% of OCPS parents sent their children to school wearing them, suggesting widespread support for the 60-day mask mandate the district imposed. The mandate ended Oct. 31.

The proposal to take money from the districts would be an “unprecedented punitive” redistribution of money in the state’s school-funding formula that aims to equalize per-student spending across the state, said the letter from Superintendent Barbara Jenkins and Teresa Jacobs, chair of the Orange County School Board.

School districts have the right to challenge state rules they think are improper, as Orange and others did with the state’s rule banning face mask mandates, the letter said, and Fine’s plan could violate the state constitution by imposing fines in ways state law does not allow.

Fine said the 12 school districts would still get more money this year than last but not as much as the 55 districts that did not require students to wear face masks. The 12 districts are in: Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Volusia counties.

DeSantis issued a statement on Twitter on Tuesday about Fine’s proposal.

“Thanks to Speaker [Chris] Sprowls, Representative Fine, and the House of Representatives for heeding my call to protect students and teachers from accountability measures affecting union-controlled politicians and bureaucrats who defied Florida law by force masking kids,” DeSantis said in the tweet. “Most students don’t want to wear masks in the first place! Let’s also give parents recourse for harms imposed on their kids due to this defiance. They should get compensated by academic, social, and emotional problems caused by these policies.”

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