TALLAHASSEE — Broward County and Alachua County school board members who voted to impose a mask mandate without an opt-out clause for parents could start losing their monthly pay as soon as next week unless they reverse their policy.
Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran on Friday issued the warning, saying he would begin withholding an amount equal to their salaries each month until they comply with the state’s parental rights law and school mask order within 48 hours.
“It is important to remember that this issue is about ensuring local school board members, elected politicians, follow the law,” Corcoran said. “These public officials have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Florida. We cannot have government officials pick and choose what laws they want to follow.”
Corcoran said the penalties would be the “initial consequences” for the boards’ actions. Florida education officials on Friday said Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach county school board members could expect the same treatment as Alachua and Broward if they do not comply with state orders.
On Friday night, Sarasota County’s school board became the sixth to require all students to wear masks unless they have a medical waiver.
The order did not say the salaries of the districts’ superintendents would be withheld, as originally threatened. In some counties, including all six districts with mask mandates, the superintendents are appointed by the boards and not elected officials, so the state’s authority over their pay is minimal
School board members in Broward make $46,773 per year, and in Alachua, they earn $40,287, according to Florida’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research. The order states the penalties would apply to eight of nine school board members in Broward who voted for the mask policy and four members in Alachua.
Corcoran’s order came as a growing number of Florida school districts require students to wear masks in school unless they have a medical reason not to. In total, there are six districts, which altogether serve more than 1 million Florida students, that have opposed the state’s orders: Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Alachua. The Orange County School Board is considering a mask mandate.
Biden administration monitoring the issue
After Corcoran issued his order, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said he spoke to Broward interim superintendent Vickie Cartwright and Alachua superintendent Carlee Simon to “reassure them that the president and his administration stand with them and with all educators who put students and staff health and education first.”
“It is deeply troubling to see state leaders putting politics ahead of the health and safety of our students, and that instead of supporting our educators for doing the right thing, state leaders are trying to punish them,” Cardona said in a statement on Friday.
During a radio interview on Friday, Cardona also said his department’s civil rights enforcement arm is open to receiving complaints from Floridians who say they don’t have “access to a safe learning environment” because of the state’s ban on mask mandates.
“We are going to investigate those cases,” Cardona said during an interview with WLRN News.
Broward County School Board chairperson Rosalind Osgood said Friday that board members feel “the governor is overreaching his authority.” She believes the district is in compliance with the state’s mask order because they have provided opt-out opportunities to students with medical conditions or special needs, and she noted the school board is exploring legal avenues to challenge any penalties.
“We will provide our response to today’s order within 48 hours as requested,” Osgood said.
Alachua County School Board vice chairperson Tina Certain said she did not make her decision based on financial concerns. Both President Joe Biden’s administration and the Alachua County Commission have offered to cover any lost wages.
Biden’s administration said last week that local school officials will be allowed to use federal relief funds to “immediately” offset any financial penalties, including the withholding of school board members’ salaries.
Corcoran has criticized the Biden administration for having the “audacity” to intervene in support of districts, which he said were acting in violation of the law.
Certain lamented that the issue had become a power struggle instead of a joint effort to create a safe working and learning environment.
“I was thinking we’d be partners,” Certain said.
A larger concern than the money, she added, was the part of the Department of Education’s order that the districts create a report of students harassed, disciplined or reassigned because of the students’ failure to comply with the districts’ “unlawful policy.”
“Folks could be harassed,” she said, noting any report would be a public record. “I don’t want us to be blamed for that.”
Anna Fusco, Broward Teachers Union president, characterized the actions by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration as “tyranny.”
“Instead of doing everything they can to keep our students and employees safe during a raging pandemic, they are punishing our brave school board members for doing their job of educating students in the safest possible environment,” Fusco said.
Hillsborough, Miami and Palm Beach on notice
Miami-Dade County superintendent Alberto Carvalho told reporters at Hialeah Gardens Elementary School on Friday that the school district has not received any word from the state.
“We have not received any letters from Tallahassee regarding the actions that this school board bravely took this week,” Carvalho said.
He said he expected the DeSantis administration to come down on Broward and Alachua, and he said he won’t be surprised if his district is next.
“I think it was expected given some of the precedents sent by the state recently. But we are determined and unflinching in our conviction that doing right sometimes comes with threatening conditions. But that’s what defines who we are,” Carvalho said.
Nevertheless, he said he stands by the school board’s decision, especially after receiving advice from a task force of area doctors Monday urging the mask mandate.
“For me, it’s a very easy proposition. If we don’t listen to them, what is the alternative?” Carvalho said. “I feel, very, very good about where we are right now, and come Monday, trust me, all the attention will be for that pre-K student.”
Hillsborough School Board member Jessica Vaughn, a staunch mask mandate supporter, said she understood before her vote Wednesday that her pay might be on the line. The board voted 5-2 to impose a mandate with exemptions for medical reasons only.
“If I have to sacrifice my salary to keep our schools safe, I’m definitely willing to do so,” Vaughn said Friday. “I have never wavered. [My stance on masks] hasn’t changed because of this.”
Districts can’t cut budget elsewhere
Corcoran’s order notes that members who voted in favor of a mask mandate will be the ones who should be penalized. The order adds that the funding reduction may not be used to cut “student services or teacher pay, only the salaries of school board members.”
The state will also continue to investigate the districts, and Corcoran “retains the right and duty to impose additional sanctions and take additional enforcement action, as necessary,” the order says.
Cardona has criticized DeSantis’ administration’s approach to the issue.
“We respect local control. What we are seeing in some places across the country is that local control is being taken away by state governments,” Cardona said. “We are trying not to overextend our reach. But what we are finding is that there’s an over-extension of reach, but it’s putting students in harm’s way, and that’s the case in Florida.”
Looking ahead, Alachua board member Certain said she doubted her board would take any action within the 48-hour time frame set by the state. There’s no real emergency, she said, and calling a special board meeting takes a bit more time.
She figured the board might want to wait, anyway, until it sees how a parent lawsuit against the governor’s order plays out in Leon County court. That trial is set to begin Monday morning.
“Based on the outcome of that hearing, it could become a moot point,” she said. “I want to see what comes out of that.”
As school board members turn their attention to the courts, the Southern Poverty Law Center on Friday filed a lawsuit that seeks to invalidate key portions of an emergency rule on mask mandates issued by the Florida Department of Health.
The lawsuit, filed in Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, asks the court to toss out portions of the rule that prevents schools from requiring students to wear masks and allow parents to apply for vouchers if they perceive their kids are being harassed over a face-covering requirement.
Part of the argument is that the state agency exceeded its emergency powers when it issued the rule.
“The Department of Health abused its emergency rule-making power to pass this rule, preventing the public and schools from being heard about how dangerous it is,” Southern Poverty Law Center senior staff attorney Sam Boyd said in a statement.
A similar argument was made Thursday by parents who have brought the lawsuit in Leon County.
McClatchy White House correspondent Bryan Lowry and Miami Herald reporter David Goodhue contributed to this report.