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DeSantis softens school board salary threats over mask mandates

The governor’s administration acknowledges it has no control over the pay of local employees.
Gov. Ron DeSantis visits Lakewood Elementary School, which was recently graded as an A school, up from an F in a couple of years, to give teachers $1,000 bonus checks, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, in St. Petersburg.
Gov. Ron DeSantis visits Lakewood Elementary School, which was recently graded as an A school, up from an F in a couple of years, to give teachers $1,000 bonus checks, Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021, in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Aug. 12
Updated Aug. 12

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration signaled earlier this week that it would slash the pay of Florida school superintendents and school board members who defy the governor on school masks.

But now — as two Florida districts, including Broward County Public Schools, remain defiant — the governor’s office is acknowledging the state has no control over local employees’ pay. His spokesperson called on “activist, anti-science school board members” to dock their own salaries if the state follows through with financial sanctions against their district.

“Those officials should own their decision — and that means owning the consequences of their decisions rather than demanding students, teachers, and school staff to foot the bill for their potential grandstanding,” Christina Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary, said in an email to the Times/Herald.

The tug-of-war between local school officials and DeSantis’ administration is playing out as millions of students return to in-person classes across Florida and parents weigh the risk of contagion amid a recent surge in coronavirus cases, including among youth and children.

Related: Some schools buck DeSantis mask mandate ban amid threats of pay cuts to officials

As of Thursday, neither local districts nor state officials were budging.

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said he may issue financial penalties for Alachua County and Broward County public schools if they refuse to amend their masking policies. Both districts are requiring a doctor’s note to opt out of their mask mandates.

Corcoran, however, said requiring a doctor’s note is “inconsistent” with state rules giving parents sole power to opt their children out of a school mask mandate. The rules were adopted after DeSantis issued an executive order that said the State Board of Education would have the authority to withhold state funds from noncompliant districts and declare them “ineligible for competitive grants” until they comply.

Days after the executive order, the governor’s office softened its approach to sanctions. Pushaw said financial penalties would be “narrowly tailored to address the offense committed” and that “only the salaries of superintendents and school board members who intentionally defy” the order and subsequent rules would be impacted. Pushaw also posted on Twitter that “schools wouldn’t be defunded.”

Alachua County Public Schools officials challenged the governor’s messaging on sanctions.

“Neither the Florida Department of Education nor the Board of Education control the payroll distribution of school districts. Your action would, however, remove funding from our district’s general fund and would be a reduction of allocation,” Superintendent Carlee Simon and School Board Chair Leanetta McNealy told the state in a letter declaring the district would not change its rule.

Corcoran warned the districts that unless they change their mask policies, he “may recommend” the State Board of Education withhold funds “in an amount equal to the salaries of the superintendent and all the members of the school board.”

The governor’s office and the Florida Department of Education did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment on whether Corcoran would recommend penalties after Alachua’s letter.

The State Board of Education is scheduled to meet at Miami Dade College on Wednesday, and so far, the issue is not included on the agenda.

If the state follows through, Alachua County Public Schools would be looking at a $300,000 reduction to its roughly $537 million budget for the 2021-22 school year.

Broward County Public Schools, the state’s second-largest school district, could be subject to a $700,000 cut to its $2.6 billion overall budget for the upcoming school year. Broward school officials have until Friday to tell Corcoran what they intend to do. On Tuesday, the Broward School Board voted 8-1 to impose a mask mandate and to seek legal counsel on how to challenge the state.

Broward school officials did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment on how they intend to proceed.

Despite the governor’s intent to impact top school officials’ pay, there is no guarantee that the state sanctions will be applied that way. The governor’s executive order does not make explicit mention that salaries were the intent, either. But Pushaw said it is “technically” possible for local officials to make their own decision on how to address the cut.

“The issue is that … superintendents and school board members are not state employees. Therefore, the only way the state could tailor the financial penalty would be to withhold an amount of funding equal to their salaries,” Pushaw said. “In that event, it is possible that the officials who are violating the law could decide to take funding from other needs in their own district, in order to pay themselves salaries. It wouldn’t be fair to the students, but it would technically be possible.”

Standing the course

Pushaw criticized the defiant local leaders, calling them “activist, anti-science school board members.”

Alachua school officials rejected that description. They noted their decision to not comply with the state rules is based on the advice of “local experts in pediatrics, immunology, virology, epidemiology, emergency medicine, and public health.”

“Several represent UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, Florida’s highest-ranked children’s hospital, and the University of Florida, our state’s flagship academic institution,” Simon and McNealy wrote to Corcoran. “These dedicated medical experts are former colleagues of Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees.”

Simon and McNealy told Corcoran they were “very concerned” about the recent surge of coronavirus cases in their community. They cited a “twenty-fold” increase in local COVID-19 cases over the past six weeks and rising hospitalizations — even among children — in their decision to stay the course.

“The death or serious illness of a child as a result of COVID-19 exposure is a far more serious injury than any discomfort that may be experienced due to universal masking,” they wrote.

DeSantis has not budged on his opposition to masking children, saying that the risk of children getting sick remains low even as he acknowledged that there is currently an increase in the number of pediatric COVID-19 patients in Florida.

He argues pediatric hospitalizations throughout the pandemic have hovered between 1.1 percent and 1.4 percent in the state, and that the delta variant hasn’t changed that proportion.

“There’s been no change in the proportion of pediatric patients who are COVID positive,” he said on Wednesday. “Obviously, we have more people that are COVID positive in the hospital than we did six weeks ago, so the raw numbers are increasing for everybody.”

Tampa Bay Times reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.