State withholds school board salaries over masks

South Florida Sun Sentinel | By Scott Travis | August 30, 2021

Despite a court ruling saying school districts can require students to wear masks, the state is still withholding money to penalize Broward County schools.

A news release Monday from the Florida Department of Education doesn’t address the ruling from Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper, who found that the state’s ban on mask mandates was unconstitutional.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said the state will withhold money equivalent to the salaries of eight of the nine Broward School Board members who voted for a mask mandate. He also is withholding the salaries of four of five board members in Alachua County who passed a similar measure.

Corcoran said the districts can’t use money designed for students or teacher pay to offset the penalty.

“We’re going to fight to protect parents’ rights to make health care decisions for their children,” Corcoran said. “They know what is best for their children. What’s unacceptable is the politicians who have raised their right hands and pledged, under oath, to uphold the Constitution but are not doing so. Simply said, elected officials cannot pick and choose what laws they want to follow.”

The release said the commissioner and state Board of Education “retain the right and duty to impose additional sanctions and take additional enforcement action to bring each school district into compliance with state law and rule.”

Some Broward School Board members expressed outrage.

“This feels illegal to me,” School Board member Sarah Leonardi said. “Perhaps Commissioner Corcoran should reread the Florida Constitution because I swore an oath to ‘provide a safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools’” outlined in the Constitution.

State officials announced Friday that they would appeal the Leon County court ruling. The judge had said he would issue his order this week, but that hasn’t happened yet, possibly providing a window for the state to take this action.

“Unlike several school districts in this state, our Department plans on continuing to follow the rule of law until such time as the Court issues its ruling, and subsequent to that ruling, we plan on immediately appealing this decision … from which we will seek to stay the ruling,” Jared Ochs, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said in a statement Monday night.

The issue relates to whether the school districts are complying with a July 30 executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis and an Aug. 7 state rule from the Department of Health saying that parents must be able to opt their children out of mask mandates. State officials are also citing the Parents Bill of Rights, a law passed by the Legislature this year that gives parents more say on matters related to their children’s health.

School districts say mask mandates are needed to protect public health, as COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed and children under 12 can’t get vaccinated. Their decisions are backed by guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Mask opponents argue that children are at low risk of getting seriously sick or dying from COVID-19 and masks make for a miserable learning environment for students.

Broward and Alachua were the first two districts to defy state orders requiring a parent opt-out. Since then eight others have joined them, including Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, but the state hasn’t taken final action on them yet.

Miami-Dade and Palm Beach received letters giving them until Wednesday to comply with the state’s orders. Neither plans to do so.

“I think what we need to make clear is our School Board believes we are acting in our constitutional authority, as indicated by Judge Cooper,” said Frank Barbieri, chairman of the Palm Beach County School Board.

Broward school officials hold similar views. Interim Broward Schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright .has said that the state Department of Health rules were written in such a way that do not require districts to allow any parent to opt out of the polcy. The district is allowing children with certain medical conditions or special needs to opt out.

“We are looking to cooperate with the Department of Education and the State Board of Education,” Cartwright said Monday. “We’re not looking to make this a political matter. We believe we are in compliance with the law.”

The issue has become intensely political, with Democratic politicians, including President Joe Biden, feuding with DeSantis and the Republican-controlled State Board of Education. Biden has offered to allow school districts to use federal dollars to replace any funds cut from the state.

The state’s action also could lead to a federal civil rights investigation. Earlier Monday, Biden’s Education Department on Monday opened investigations into five Republican-led states — Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah — that have banned or limited mask requirements in schools, saying the policies could amount to discrimination against students with disabilities or health conditions.

Florida was not on the list, federal officials said, because of the judge’s ruling preventing the state from enforcing the ban on mask mandates. That could change now that the state doubled down on its intent to enforce its rules.

“The department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

In announcing the investigations, the department said it will examine whether the policies violate a federal law protecting students with disabilities. Under that law, students with disabilities must be given access to a “free appropriate public education” alongside their peers without disabilities.

Broward School Board Chairwoman Rosalind Osgood said she’s “very disappointed” that Corcoran and the Department of Education are “not willing to work with school districts” while the legal issues are resolved.

“Any defunding of public education is not appropriate,” Osgood said. “Our staff and students are experiencing additional trauma caused by the pandemic. Many staff and students have lost family members, friends and coworkers. Districts are trying to provide quality face-to-face learning.”

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