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Alachua County vows to fight back after state withholds school board salaries over mask mandate

Alachua Schools Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon said her board members “deserve praise, not penalties” for their “courageous decision” to defy an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis and implement a districtwide mask mandate.

Alachua Schools Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon said her board members “deserve praise, not penalties” for their “courageous decision” to defy an executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis and implement a districtwide mask mandate.

A circuit judge last week ruled DeSantis’ statewide ban against mask mandates in schools unconstitutional.

Despite that ruling -- which the state says it will appeal -- Florida state education officials on Monday began to make good on threats to withhold funding from local school districts that defied DeSantis’ ban.

Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran announced that the Florida Department of Education has withheld an amount equal to monthly school board member salaries in both Alachua and Broward counties, as directed by the State Board of Education. Funds will continue to be withheld until the districts comply, Corcoran said.

In Alachua County, the salaries of the four board members affected by the FDOE’s sanction is $13,429 total per month, according to a district spokesperson. Board member Mildred Russel was not on the board at the time it voted to impose the district’s mask mandate.

“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 to the First DCA, from which we will seek to stay the ruling,” FDOE spokesperson Jared Ochs told News4Jax Tuesday. “We actually began withholding these funds last Thursday, based on the already lawfully executed orders of the State Board of Education.”

Simon responded in a statement posted to Twitter: “I’m very troubled by the state’s action. Our School Board members made a courageous decision to protect the health and lives of students, staff and the people of this community, and a court has already ruled that they had the legal right to do so.”

She also vowed her district will fight back, saying “we have already begun working with our colleagues in other districts to take legal action.”

Simon said the district believes the legal fight “is a necessary step to ensure that Florida districts have the right to act in the best interests of those they serve.”

Simon told News4Jax that local school boards know what’s best for their districts.

“Our school board members feel very strongly that the value and cost of human life is much too much for them to want to have to carry that burden of and so they’re fine with having to possibly face the consequences of their salaries being impacted,” Simon said. “And I think that it’s a very brave and courageous move, that they are very much focused on their principles and not on cowering to threats from the government.”

Simon said she has been in talks with other school districts and the federal government. She said the fight just isn’t about public health and safety.

“By taking away local control of our elected board members, that is problematic, and, honestly, no matter what side of the aisle you sit on, that should be problematic to every single person in government who is seeing this overreach because it is essentially eroding democracy,” she said. “And that’s not how we should be running our country.”

Broward County Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright responded in a statement that the Broward County School Board believes they are in compliance with the law.

“The health and safety of our students, teachers and staff continue to be our main priorities,” Cartwright said. “As such, BCPS (Broward County Public Schools) will continue to mandate masks, knowing the data shows they help minimize the spread of COVID-19 in our schools.”

President Joe Biden has said that if the state withheld funding from school boards, federal money would be used to cover any costs.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona reiterated that in several tweets Tuesday, saying the federal government has “reminded district leaders that federal pandemic relief funds can be used to cover any financial penalties imposed on them by the state as a result of local efforts to protect the health & safety of those on school grounds.”

“We will continue to monitor this situation and stand with parents, students, and the hardworking educators & staff who are doing all they can to have a safe & healthy in-person school year,” Cardona wrote on Twitter.

The governor’s office disputes whether the federal government has the authority to pay school board members.

“The USDOE cannot pay the salaries of local officials because they aren’t federal employees. The ARP funding that the federal government already allocated to Florida isn’t under the control of the Biden Administration,” said DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw in an emailed statement. “USDOE Secretary Cardona is the same Biden Administration official, who just a few weeks ago said that Florida would be violating federal requirements by providing $1,000 bonuses to teachers and principals.”

School districts in Alachua and Broward counties were the first of at least 10 to require all students to wear masks unless they had a medical exemption in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Those districts, which include cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and West Palm Beach, represent slightly more than half of the 2.8 million Florida public school students enrolled this year.

Corcoran said those districts are violating parental rights by not allowing a parent or legal guardian to opt-out their child, as required by a Florida Department of Health emergency rule.

“We’re going to fight to protect parent’s rights to make health care decisions for their children," Corcoran said in a statement. “They know what is best for their children.”

Corcoran said elected officials, like the school board members, cannot pick and choose what laws they want to follow. He said the board members pledged to uphold the Constitution but were not doing so.

The state Department of Education is also taking aim at Duval County Public Schools over the district’s decision to impose a 90-day mask mandate for students unless they have a medical exemption from a doctor. The department is launching an investigation into the DCPS because of that rule.

Last week, Corcoran sent a letter to Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Diana Greene and school board chair Elizabeth Andersen, saying that the district must come into compliance with the governor’s order banning mask mandates

On Friday, a Tallahassee circuit judge agreed with a group of parents who argued in a lawsuit that DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced. Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper said an executive order issued by DeSantis that served as the basis for the health department’s emergency rule is without legal authority.

Cooper said his ruling wouldn't go into effect until it is put into writing, which he asked the parents’ lawyers to complete by Monday. Craig Whisenhunt, one of the attorneys representing the parents, said they complied and expect the ruling to take effect this week.

The governor’s office has said that Cooper’s decision wasn’t based on the law, and the state will appeal it.

The highly contagious delta variant led to an acceleration in cases around Florida and record-high hospitalizations just as schools prepared to reopen classrooms. By mid-August, more than 21,000 new cases were being added per day, compared with about 8,500 a month earlier. Over the past week, new cases and hospitalizations have leveled off. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services tallied 15,488 patients with COVID-19 in Florida hospitals, an 8% decrease over the past week.

Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran announced that the Florida Department of Education has withheld an amount equal to monthly school board member salaries in both Alachua and Broward counties, as directed by the State Board of Education.

About the Authors:

Joe covers education and breaking news. He is a frequent contributor to the News4Jax I-team and Trust Index coverage.