Benefits also withheld for school board members who defied state emergency mask rule
'It's hard to find common ground,' one parent said
Leon County School Board member Rosanne Wood was expecting her salary to be withheld by the state — but not her health insurance premium.
Wood got a letter from the school district on Monday: If she did not receive a paycheck for November, she would have to pay for her health insurance, her dental insurance and her medical flex plan out of pocket by the fifth of the month to keep her coverage, it said.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this," Wood said, “but that’s what they’ve chosen to do.”
The withholding of school board member salaries is without precedent, and board members and the district are navigating the situation on a day-by-day basis. There are still unknowns, like what happens to monthly retirement investments or whether the state will give back pay to board members if the district comes into compliance.
Previously:Leon Schools scales back school mask mandate, but district may still be out of compliance
Even though the district walked back its mask mandate in mid-October and allowed parents the ultimate authority on whether a child wears a mask to school, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is still withholding the salaries of board members.
That's because of the district's quarantine rule, which says that an asymptomatic child must wear a mask if they are to attend school during the quarantine period of seven days.
"I think it’s completely unfair, but if that’s what it takes to stand up for what we think is safe for kids and our employees, then that’s what it takes,” said Wood, who will now fully depend on her pension from the Florida Retirement System for her 36-year career in education. She is one of two school board members who have to pay to keep their benefits with the district.
FLDOE:State withholds Leon County School Board salaries over mask policy
Since the mask debate began this summer, Superintendent Rocky Hanna has consistently said the district's rules have been influenced by local COVID data and recommendations from nationally recognized health experts.
In June, before the Delta variant spread in Leon County and broke COVID hospitalization records, Hanna strongly favored a mask optional approach.
As cases climbed, the superintendent strengthened the district's mask mandate in August and required masks for students in pre-K to 8th grade, ending the option for parents to opt-out. This decision came one day after a 3rd-grade child from Canopy Oaks Elementary School died from COVID.
'We will stand together':Canopy Oaks in mourning after third grader's death
But angry public comments at school board members and threatening emails from the commissioner of education have ignited a mask war in the state. Parental rights' advocates and school districts are battling it out in the courts to decide which is more overreaching, the state's emergency rule on masks or school districts with mask mandates.
Earlier this month, the Florida Board of Education found the Leon County school district in non-compliance for defying the state Department of Health rule that banned local mask mandates requiring a doctor's approval to opt out.
"I know for a fact that many elementary school parents sent their kids back to school in August because we enacted a mask policy that made them feel safe," Wood said. "If we saved one child or one employee from going to the hospital, then it has all been worth it."
Previously:Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna makes masks mandatory for K-8, drops parental opt-out
Critics of the district's mask mandate have been flooding school board meetings to berate members who support Hanna. Some step up to the lectern wearing shirts and scarves emblazoned with the American flags, quoting Bible scripture and pointing fingers at the dais.
"It's OK if you want to wear a mask, it's OK if you don't want to wear a mask," said April Banta at a school board meeting on Aug. 24. "Stop telling people what to do with their bodies. It's my body, it's my choice. It's my child, it's my choice."
On Wednesday afternoon, the Democrat spoke to parents who were in line to pick up their kids at Kate Sullivan Elementary School and Cobb Middle School. Some did not agree with the mask mandate, but all said the state went overboard when they decided to withhold the salaries of school board members over the district's mask rules.
From their perspective:What Leon County kids think about masks in schools
"It's just everywhere you go around every corner you see different sides, and I understand their purposes, but to withhold school board salaries seems a bit stiff," said Carrie Cardenas, as she was sitting in her white sedan waiting to pick up her child from Kate Sullivan.
"The school board, they do so much for us," she said. "We're at a point in our life if you say anything you're going to have people on this side and you're going to have people on (that) side, and it's hard to find common ground.
"But you know what? I know what the teachers and the school system do for my kids, so I have to give them respect."
Rickards High School student Ethan Ruddell, sitting in the passenger seat of his mother's mini van, said that it was selfish of officials to push any other agenda other than to keep students safe.
Both Ethan and his mother were waiting on Lucy Street to pick up Ethan's sibling from Cobb.
"Withholding salaries and benefits like this, I see it as a tyrannical way to punish people who are trying to protect kids," said Ethan, 16.
Contact Ana Goñi-Lessan at AGoniLessan@tallahassee.com and follow her on Twitter @goni_lessan.
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