Feds warn Florida to reconsider withholding money from school boards over mask mandates

President Joe Biden’s administration on Monday warned top Florida education officials to “reconsider your threatened actions” after the state said it would try to thwart attempts to use federal money to cover salaries of county school-board members who approved student mask requirements.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – President Joe Biden’s administration on Monday warned top Florida education officials to “reconsider your threatened actions” after the state said it would try to thwart attempts to use federal money to cover salaries of county school-board members who approved student mask requirements.

Eight school boards face state financial penalties because of decisions to enact mask mandates amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Those penalties target amounts of money equal to board member salaries.

The State Board of Education approved imposing the financial penalties, relying on a Sept. 22 emergency rule from the Florida Department of Health that said decisions to opt out of mask requirements are at the “sole discretion” of parents or guardians. The health department’s rule was designed to carry out a July 30 executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis that sought to prevent mask requirements.

Alachua Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon told News4Jax her district never took federal aid.

“But we are watching and in the event that we need to draw down funding from the federal government when we do, we will let the commissioner know,” said Simon.

Ian Rosenblum, deputy assistant secretary for policy and programs for the U.S. Department of Education, sent a letter Monday to state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to try to stave off an attempt to prevent federal grant funds from making up state money lost by the school boards.

The U.S. Department of Education on Sept. 23 awarded $150,000 to Alachua County to cover the salaries of four school board members, and days later provided $420,000 to backfill salaries for eight Broward County board members.

The federal funding was awarded through a grant program titled Project SAFE, or Supporting America’s Families and Educators.

During an Oct. 7 meeting of the State Board of Education, Corcoran characterized the grants as an attempt by the federal government to “buy off school districts” and to “neutralize and abolish” the state board’s enforcement authority.

As part of the penalties, Corcoran recommended withholding state money to the eight districts in amounts equal to any federal funding they receive.

But Rosenblum pointed to a section of a federal education law that says states “shall not take into consideration payments under this act ... in determining ... the amount of state aid, with respect to free public education of children.”

“If FLDOE (the Florida Department of Education) moves forward with its planned reduction of state aid to Alachua and Broward, the (federal) department is prepared to initiate enforcement action to stop these impermissible state actions,” Rosenblum wrote.

At least one district whose school board has had salaries threatened by the state has dropped its student mask requirement, as a summer surge in coronavirus cases has died down in recent weeks.

The Brevard County schools on Friday announced the county had reached a benchmark in local cases that would trigger a repeal of its mask policy.

The district published a notice on its website that said the county reached a reduced level of 50 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people and that the district would allow for parental opt-outs of the mask requirement. It included in the notice an opt-out form that does not require documented medical reasons for exemptions.

“This is exactly how the mask mandate was supposed to be used,” School Board Chairwoman Misty Belford said in a statement. “The goal was to protect the health of our students and staff.”

Alachua County on Oct. 19 relaxed its student mask requirement to allow parents of high school students to opt out, but students in kindergarten through eighth grade will be required to wear masks for the next three weeks.

Broward County is keeping its student mask requirement in place despite threats from the state. The district requires students in all schools to wear masks in schools and on school buses.

In a statement, the Florida Department of Education called the letter ‘legally hollow’ and said it would continue forward, ‘lawfully, as we have this entire time’.

“Governor DeSantis is in the catbird seat,” said State Representative Randy Fine.

Fine, who chairs the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, said while it’s not clear exactly what the feds are threatening, he sees no reason for the state to worry.

“It ends when California and New York taxpayers pay for education in Florida, which I think would be an outstanding outcome and I hope President Biden does it,” said Fine.

Meanwhile, an administrative law judge is expected to issue a decision by Nov. 5 in a challenge by six school boards, including Broward and Alachua, to the state Department of Health’s rule aimed at preventing student mask requirements.

The school masking debate is expected to enter the halls of the Capitol in an upcoming special session, and it’s a Republican State Senator from Alachua County who is leading the charge.

Senator Kieth Perry’s bill would make any school mask mandate null and void.

Dr. Simon called the proposal shortsighted.

“Right now we’re talking about COVID. What about other future viruses that might come about?” said Simon.

Rep. Fine said beyond the legislation, school districts that fought the state over masking should expect additional punishment saying he doesn’t think they will have a good budget year.

Rep Fine also said he believes local officials that implement mask mandates should face criminal charges, but the legislation currently on the table does not include any specific penalties.

About the Authors:

Ryan Dailey is a reporter with experience in print and radio, having covered state and local news in Tallahassee since 2014. A graduate of Florida State University, Dailey has been a resident of the capital city since 2012. He joined the News Service of Florida in 2021, reporting with a focus on education and education policy.