Lawmakers drop $200 million plan to punish school districts that mandated masks

South Florida Sun Sentinel | By Jim Turner and Ryan Dailey | March 8, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — House and Senate budget negotiators on Tuesday revised a plan that called for shifting $200 million away from school districts, including Orange, Broward and Palm Beach counties, that required students to wear masks last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The initial version of the plan, labeled the Putting Parents First Adjustment, was swapped Tuesday for what is being called the School Recognition Program, which would offer rewards to districts that followed state mask directives.

The change came as House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, and Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, continued to negotiate budget details in the final days of the 2022 legislative session.

Trumbull and Stargel still hoped Tuesday to avoid extending the session beyond Friday’s scheduled end, but little time remained to meet that goal.

State law requires a 72-hour “cooling off” period before the House and Senate can vote on the budget, which means lawmakers would have to complete the budget Tuesday to end the session Friday.

“Our goal was same as it was this morning, is to do everything we possibly can to get done today,” Trumbull said Tuesday afternoon. “You know, our staffs (are) working crazy amounts of hours. I’m super, super appreciative of all of that. So hopefully, we can get there.”

The budget likely will top $100 billion for the second consecutive year and will take effect July 1, the start of the state’s 2022-2023 fiscal year.

The agreement on the new school recognition program came as talks continued over issues involving public schools, higher education and agriculture and natural resources, including gaps in spending over resiliency projects and land preservation.

Stargel said remaining items will start to “close up,” as the formatting of the budget is “a little bit faster than it used to be in the old days.”

The school recognition plan still involves $200 million. However, that money would be placed into a reserve fund and distributed to school districts that did not impose student mask mandates in accordance with directives from Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The initial plan to shift money away from school districts would have been included in the main funding formula for public schools. The $200 million would have been redistributed to the 55 districts that did not impose mask mandates.

Trumbull called the new plan “much more clean” and said the 12 districts that imposed student mask mandates will be ineligible to receive the financial boosts.

Those 12 districts are in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Volusia counties.

An overall House budget offer Tuesday included nearly $24.3 billion in funding for public schools, an increase of almost $1.7 billion over the current year, bringing per-student funding to $8,143.

Budget chiefs were trying to iron out details of a Senate plan to raise the minimum wage for all school employees to $15 per hour.

The proposed education budget also includes $800 million to continue a plan to raise teacher salaries to $47,500, an increase of $250 million over the current year.

That increase would go beyond the amount that DeSantis requested from lawmakers. The governor in November recommended that legislators earmark $600 million to increase educator pay.

Earlier in the day, Trumbull and Stargel agreed to issues involving funding for cybersecurity, transportation, health care, and civil and criminal justice.

Among those agreements were a 7 percent Medicaid rate increase for nursing homes, base pay raises of 5.38% for state workers, and purchasing a pair of Embraer Phenom 300E executive jets for state leaders as part of a $31.3 million budget-related bill (SB 2512).

Vicki Hall, president of AFSCME Florida, which represents state workers, issued a statement praising the pay raises.

“We applaud the leadership of both the House and Senate for historic increases for the state workers who provide the vital, essential services our communities need,” Hall said in the statement. “State workers are in need of both living wages to lift families out of poverty and enhanced compensation for professionals whose pay has not kept pace with comparable private-sector counterparts.”

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