School officials prepared to forego pay over masking issue

FILE - In this Aug. 9, 2017, photo, flags decorate a space outside the office of the Education Secretary at the Education Department in Washington. President-elect Joe Biden has chosen the education commissioner for Connecticut and a former public school teacher to serve as education secretary. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Jacquelyn Martin, Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Most Florida school districts wrapped up their first week of classes Friday, almost all with a parental opt-out for face masks.

The Florida Department of Education has threatened to withhold funding equal to the salaries of the superintendents and school board members in Alachua and Broward counties if they don’t come into compliance before Tuesday.

It’s more than a week before a lawsuit attempting to block the state’s opt-out mandate is expected to be ruled on.

The lawsuit brought by parents from across the state is attempting to put the decision of masking back in the hands of local school districts.

The parents’ attorney, Charles Gallagher, told us the first week of school has been difficult.

“I’m hearing of classrooms being closed down. I’m hearing kids contracting COVID on the second day of school, third day of school,” said Gallagher.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried painted a similar picture of school re-openings in a virtual press conference Friday.

“As of last night, there were 440 students in Palm Beach County schools that were quarantined after exposure to COVID,” said Fried.

The parents’ lawsuit got its first hearing later in the afternoon, but a final ruling isn’t expected until Aug. 25.

Already, judges in Texas and Arkansas have temporarily blocked bans on mask mandates.

“The trend certainly does appear to favor a resolution that does protect students, and gives school boards the right to govern themselves,” said Gallagher.

In a statement, the governor’s office noted the decisions in Texas and Arkansas have no bearing on Florida.

“We are confident in the legal basis for protecting parents’ freedom to choose whether their own children wear masks or not,” said DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw.

With no ruling expected before the next meeting of the State Board of Education, where members are expected to vote to withhold the salaries of officials in districts out of compliance, school officials are going to have a tough choice to make: forego a paycheck or pay themselves and take money from other areas of their school budget.

At least two members of Broward’s school board have committed to forgoing their pay.

“I personally am prepared if the Governor goes that route to take our salaries, to give up my salary,” said Broward County School Board Chair Dr. Rosalind Osgood.

“I am prepared to go without a paycheck,” said Broward School Board member Sarah Leonardi.

State Senate Democrats have pledged to start a GoFundMe to pay the salaries of the school officials if DOE follows through and cuts funding.

Also, Alachua County officials have vowed to supplement the salaries of their superintendent and school board members.