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School mask mandate threats polarize Florida legislators

Several districts have announced they will defy DeSantis’ executive order.
Lobbyists track the action in the Florida Senate during the final week of the Florida Legislative session at the Capitol in Tallahassee in 2019. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Lobbyists track the action in the Florida Senate during the final week of the Florida Legislative session at the Capitol in Tallahassee in 2019. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Aug. 21
Updated Aug. 22

TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators, who control the purse strings over public education, are just as polarized over whether it is right for state officials to withhold money for violating the governor’s executive order as they are over whether school districts can require students to wear masks.

Republican lawmakers who control the budget committees in the state House and Senate said Friday that they support education commissioner Richard Corcoran’s threat to withhold money from school boards that impose mask mandates and potentially remove the elected officials from office as Florida faces another week of surging COVID-19 cases.

But Democratic members of those same committees, who are the minority party in the Legislature but are a majority in most of the largest school districts, say the executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis — which prohibits local officials from imposing mask requirements without giving parents the ability to opt out — violates the Florida Constitution’s provision requiring that schoolchildren be protected from harm.

“Every single Floridian regardless of political affiliation should be upset by this decision to withhold taxpayer dollars for public education,” said Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book of Plantation.

She called the decisions by local school boards in Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Alachua counties to require that students wear facial coverings for in-person learning an attempt to enforce “national health guidelines clearly intended to meet their most important constitutional obligation to all citizens, which is protecting their health, safety, and welfare — and that certainly includes children.”

Republicans, however, see the decisions by the school districts in some of the state’s most populous counties as an affront to the governor’s executive order prohibiting mask mandates. They defended his order as essential to upholding a parent’s right to choose how to protect their children.

“When it comes to health care for children, the rights and responsibilities to make final decisions belong to parents,” said Sen. Doug Broxson, a Pensacola Republican who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. The governor’s executive order “ensures these parental rights, as outlined in state law, are upheld.”

Now, as schools across the state continue to open for in-person learning, the debate will play out in the courts.

A Leon County Circuit Court judge on Thursday denied a motion by the governor to dismiss a case brought by parents accusing the governor of overstepping his authority and the court case will begin Monday. The parents of 15 children with disabilities filed a federal lawsuit Aug. 6 alleging that the governor’s order puts their children at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

Similar court fights in Texas over Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates were put on temporary hold by a judge there this week.

‘Defunding’ schools

Depending on how Florida’s lawsuits evolve, GOP legislative leaders say lawmakers could return in a special session to attempt to legislate mandates, or stand back and exact punishment against school districts that defy the governor by withholding funds from them during next year’s budget.

“I can tell you, if my school district requires masks, I will make sure they get hurt next year,’’ said Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, chairperson of the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee.

“I’m not going to share what I will do. But it will hurt,” he said. “Students are not going to be prevented from going to school because some bureaucrat wants to tell parents how to raise their child. It’s not going to happen, at least in Brevard County.”

Rep. Melony Bell, R-Fort Meade, vice chairperson of the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, said she stands by Corcoran’s decision to require superintendents to follow what she considers a constitutional law.

“It should be up to the parents. That’s the rule that the governor set,” Bell said.

Bell added that she wouldn’t be surprised if the school masking issue resulted in a special legislative session — perhaps during the legislative committee weeks that start next month in Tallahassee. Before DeSantis issued an executive order banning mask mandates in schools, he had urged legislators to consider a special session, but they did not call one.

Now, with the mask mandate becoming a political standoff between local school boards — with the White House backing them — and DeSantis, several legislators said they fear it may be too late to find common ground.

“Taking the salaries of a school board is defunding school districts,’’ said Rep. Matt Willhite, a Wellington Democrat and the ranking Democratic member on the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee. “These are not just blue counties. They are red and blue counties, very diverse counties, where people are making decisions because they think it’s the best thing for their kids.”

He said he fears that “when you put fear into people for making decisions they think is doing the best thing for the people that they represent, you can lose people’s confidence.”

If legislators were to call a special session to reverse those officials, who like the governor are independently elected to office, “I’m not sure who would show up,” Willhite said.

Of the more than a dozen legislators the Times/Herald asked to comment Friday, Democrats were more willing to respond.

“I’m proud of my local school board for standing up to the governor,” said Sen. Tina Polsky, a West Palm Beach Democrat.

She said that of the three school boards in South Florida, there was only one vote against imposing a mask requirement. “So I think that goes to show you that’s what this area is asking for,” she said.

Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, said that the money the state is withholding is taxpayers’ money, “it’s not their money,” she said, referring to Corcoran and DeSantis.

The officials responsible for operating local schools “should get the salaries and benefits that they are supposed to get, because I don’t think anyone in the administration or the commissioner has the capacity to run schools across the state on a daily basis.”

Politicizing the fight

Both sides accuse the other of using the issue for political advantage.

Advocates of mask mandates “want to ‘virtue signal’” that masks stop all COVID-19, Fine said, which he said he believes creates a dangerous perception that “it’s a solution, which it is not.”

He said he believes that the “radicals” on the right, “who say COVID is a hoax,” and “radicals” on the left “who think masks create some sort of impenetrable force field” are both wrong. Their positions are “a psychological coping condition,” he said, and distract against the real solutions.

Fine said he “almost died from COVID” and has a son who contracted it and won’t be wearing a mask to school. He said he would prefer that school boards put as much energy into focusing on setting up vaccine clinics at schools “because vaccinations work” as they do on masks.

Democrats blame DeSantis’ ambition

Several Democrats blamed DeSantis’ ambition to become a candidate for the 2024 presidency for leading to his hard line against masks in school districts that have seen COVID-19 cases surge.

Sen. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat, warned that she believes the governor’s hard line “is all going to backfire.”

“Even folks that I consider moderates are looking at this governor and scratching their heads. He doesn’t care about the average Floridian. What he cares about is getting himself out of a national primary by signaling to his base, and Floridians be damned.”

Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat, took to Twitter to broadcast her response to Corcoran’s announcement that he would withhold the equivalent of one month’s salary of each school board member in districts that imposed mask requirements. She accused DeSantis of “behaving like the dictators we all despise.”

Tampa Bay Times reporter Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect spelling of Rep. Melony Bell’s name.