Board of Education criticizes Florida schools over mask mandates, mulls penalties

The board floated the idea of removing school leaders from office or withholding salaries after further investigation.
Educational Commissioner, Richard Corcoran listens during public remarks during a meeting of the Florida State Board of Education at the St. Petersburg College Seminole Campus, Wednesday, July 14, 2021 in Seminole.
Educational Commissioner, Richard Corcoran listens during public remarks during a meeting of the Florida State Board of Education at the St. Petersburg College Seminole Campus, Wednesday, July 14, 2021 in Seminole. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Aug. 17, 2021|Updated Aug. 18, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Two Florida school districts that flouted Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order on mask mandates escaped sanctions Tuesday, as the State Board of Education called for further review of their initiatives.

The seven-member board determined that the Broward County and Alachua County school districts had violated state rules and laws relating to mask mandates and parental rights by not offering opt-out provisions. But the board did not withhold funding or take other punitive steps as originally threatened.

Education commissioner Richard Corcoran, who had floated the idea of severe and immediate sanctions, lamented that the Biden administration had stepped in at the “last minute” to support the districts. The administration’s proposed actions regarding federal stimulus money could offset any financial penalties the state imposes.

“They’re going to back fill the salaries of the school board members and superintendents,” Corcoran told the board. “I just want to put in perspective for you where we are with the Biden administration.”

Related: Biden calls Broward superintendent, says he backs school mask mandate

As a result, State Board chairperson Tom Grady offered a proposal for Corcoran to further investigate the districts, delaying any possible penalties until state officials can figure out a punishment that sticks.

“It may involve withholding salaries. It may involve removing officers. It may involve reviewing district conduct. It may involve public records requests to see how monies are being spent within the districts, including whether they’re being spent for public relations or political purposes contrary to their constitutional mandate,” Grady said as he listed what future penalties could entail.

Grady said Corcoran should “take all legal steps to enforce” the state’s rules and laws and directed the Florida Department of Education to make recommendations to the Legislature on amending laws as necessary to give the board enforcement authority over areas where it currently does not.

Alachua extends its mask mandate

The State Board’s action did not appear to deter the Alachua County School Board. After several hours of public comment, both for and against a mask mandate, the board unanimously agreed Tuesday night to extend their rule for eight weeks.

“I respect the rights of parents, but at the same time we have to do what’s best for the district as a whole,” board vice chairperson Tina Certain said, explaining her support for the measure.

Board chairperson Leanetta McNealy said she could not abide by any action that leads to the death of a young person. She noted that the State Board had threatened to possibly unseat the board members if they continue to disobey state directives.

”If they do that,” she said. “I hope the next board that the governor puts in has as much guts as we have and as much integrity as we have.”

Alachua’s decision had the support of many community members, one of whom thanked the board for “putting the children of our community ahead of yourselves,” as well as several medical professionals and other political leaders.

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools

Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter

We’ll break down the local and state education developments you need to know every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

County Commission chairperson Ken Cornell told the Alachua board that the entire commission stands behind it, and has called a special meeting for Wednesday to consider a countywide indoor mask mandate.

Related: US education secretary 'deeply concerned' about DeSantis mask order

The School Board also heard from parents who demanded the right to choose whether their children wear masks.

Other school boards across the state watched the State Board’s meeting with interest. Several have plans to follow the lead of Alachua and Broward, including Miami-Dade Public Schools, the fourth-largest district in the nation and the largest in Florida.

The Miami-Dade County and Hillsborough County school boards are set to discuss mask mandates without opt-out clauses on Wednesday afternoon. The Sarasota County board chairperson said she might call an emergency meeting of her board to do the same as early as Thursday.

Related: Early COVID counts push Hillsborough schools to consider stronger mask rules

Public comments get heated

A parent from Hillsborough County phoned into the conference call and told the State Board to “squash this garbage from Broward and Alachua, so it doesn’t permeate the rest of the state.”

Overall, public comment during the meeting made clear the wide divide among residents over masks. Some called for “tyrannical school boards” to be deposed. Others equated the State Board’s proceedings to a trial in a communist regime, with the goal of punishment, and called Gov. Ron DeSantis a “dictator.”

Politics also came through, as Democratic officials called in to criticize the Republican-dominated State Board. Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who is challenging DeSantis in 2022, were among them.

“Shame on all of you,” Fried told board members. “How embarrassing that you are more afraid of the governor than you are for the lives of our children and teachers who are already getting sick and dying in record numbers.”

President Joe Biden’s call with Broward County interim superintendent Vickie Cartwright on Friday night also garnered the attention of Grady, who insisted his questions about the call were “not a political undertaking.”

“We are not partisan, as you are not, I hope,” Grady said when he asked Cartwright how the call came about.

“Sir, I don’t know. I do not know the background behind all of that,” Cartwright said. “But I am not really sure what the bearing of that conversation is on today’s discussion.”

Cartwright said Biden wanted to know how the community was responsive to the district’s mask mandate. She said she told the president that the response was overwhelmingly in support of face coverings.

In response to the state’s threats, Cartwright and School Board chairperson Rosalind Osgood asked Corcoran on Friday to “seriously consider the appropriateness of withholding funds,” noting that the funding reduction could impact services to students in the district.

“He just expressed words of comfort and support and it was just more of a level of comfort, as you might say,” Cartwright added.

State Board members grilled Cartwright and Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon for about an hour each. The line of questioning made clear members believe the districts’ leaders had violated state law and a state rule that says parents must have the ability to solely decide whether their child wears a mask or not.

They attempted to get the superintendents to agree. Such admissions were not coming.

Instead, Cartwright and Simon asserted that the state rules were vague, and insisted that their districts had followed state law as written. They added that they followed the advice of medical professionals and questioned why the state would want to interfere in local decisions to protect children.

“If the goal is getting students face to face, then the masks are what helps us get there,” Simon said.