Biden Administration warns Florida over financial sanctions against school boards with mask mandates
This letter is the latest in a back-and-forth fight between the feds and Florida
The U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran Monday, warning that withholding federal funds from districts that enacted mask mandates would make the state out of compliance with federal law.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis OK'd docking school board members' pay in counties that require kids to wear masks, but the federal government stepped in to replace that money. Then the state withheld that money too.
Now, the Education Department's letter says that if the state keeps doing that, it's "prepared to initiate enforcement action to stop these impermissible state actions."
A spokesperson didn't divulge what action the federal government is willing to take: "We hope that (Florida) reconsiders their threatened actions against these districts ... so that the districts may continue to take steps to help ensure safe and healthy environments for their students, families, and educators," Luke Jackson said.
Monday's letter, which only addresses Alachua and Broward counties, is the latest in a back-and-forth fight about mask mandates between school districts, DeSantis and President Joe Biden's administration. A message was left Monday with the Florida Department of Education seeking comment.
Even though federal guidelines state that everyone in K-12 schools should wear a mask indoors regardless of vaccination status, DeSantis signed an executive order directing the state departments of Education and Health to issue emergency rules to allow parents to make the decision for their children to wear masks in schools.
"We think that's the most fair way to do it," DeSantis said during a July press conference, adding that he doesn't make his own three small children wear masks — and joking they wouldn't wear them correctly for long if they did.
The COVID-19 delta variant swept across Florida and pushed hospital ICUs over capacity, causing some school districts to impose mask mandates to mitigate the community spread. But that was against the emergency rules, drawing disapproval from Corcoran and the state Board of Education.
Since July of this year, 26 school-age children have died from COVID-19, according to the Florida Education Association.
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After the state withheld funding equal to the salaries of school board members from Alachua and Broward counties, the U.S. Department of Education stepped in and funded the districts through a grant.
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But on Oct. 7, the State Board of Education voted to sanction eight counties, including Alachua and Broward, for defying the Department of Health rule that banned local mask mandates requiring a doctor's note to opt out.
Not only would salaries be withheld, but so would federal dollars used to make up the withheld state funds.
"We will not be strong-armed, nor will we allow others to be," Corcoran said earlier this month. "Should the federal government's efforts stray even slightly from justice to deter parental rights or lawful speech, they should prepare for a very swift and zealous response."
Not just salaries affected:Benefits also withheld for school board members who defied state emergency mask rule
Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna said the district applied for what's called a Project SAFE grant for a little over $200,000, which is equal to the amount of five school board member salaries. The district has not yet heard back.
"I firmly believe that local school districts have a constitutional right to enact policies that reflect the will of their local community," Hanna said. "The federal government is helping to protect the rights of local school districts from being overrun and controlled by state government."
Hanna, who did not get his salary withheld, said he will not be accepting his paycheck for the month of October, which would have been deposited at the end of the week.
"We're all in this together," he said.
Contact Ana Goñi-Lessan at AGoniLessan@tallahassee.com and follow her on Twitter @goni_lessan.
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