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Florida Legislature still taking aim at school districts that had mask mandates

Florida lawmakers have agreed to make 12 districts, including Hillsborough, ineligible for “school recognition” grants.
Marissa Hernandez, 11, holds onto her mask while speaking to a reporter outside Burnett Middle School in Seffner on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020.
Marissa Hernandez, 11, holds onto her mask while speaking to a reporter outside Burnett Middle School in Seffner on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Mar. 11|Updated Mar. 11

TALLAHASSEE — A threat to withhold millions of dollars from 12 school districts — including Miami-Dade, Broward and Hillsborough — for imposing strict mask mandates during the pandemic last year is no longer in play.

Instead, Florida lawmakers have agreed to make those districts ineligible to receive “school recognition” grants meant to reward schools that perform well. Schools that receive those grants can use the money toward teacher bonuses, school supplies and other educational expenses to improve student performance.

The $200 million that lawmakers have set aside for the Florida School Recognition Program will be available to the 55 school districts that never required masks and followed an executive order and rules set by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration.

“What we are saying is, ‘Hey, you followed the law and your school is doing well, you have the ability to draw down some of these resources. Should you have broken the law, then you don’t receive those resources,’ " said House Appropriations chairperson Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City. “This is just an opportunity for us to reward those school districts that followed the law.”

But Democratic state lawmakers took issue with the characterization that the 12 districts broke state law and that they should be punished when they were following federal guidelines on masking at the time.

“Does it seem fair (to) my school district, in an effort to protect kids, and their lives and their safety, (who) decided to follow the federal government and not an executive order? Is that fair to reward those who went with Ron (DeSantis) and not Joe (Biden)? Is that fair?” said Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami.

Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Pensacola, the Senate’s top education budget writer, suggested that the proposal is a softer punishment for districts than what lawmakers were initially considering during the 60-day legislative session.

“There will be some pain, but we are making it as little as possible,” Broxson said. “I think this is a temporary problem that we are trying to fix with a temporary solution.”

The initial proposal would have shifted $200 million away from the 12 districts and given the money to the 55 districts that follow the state’s masking edicts.

Related: Florida Legislature releases proposed $112 billion budget with big pay raises

The so-called Putting Parents First adjustment was proposed by state Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard, who chairs the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee.

Under the initial proposal, here is how much some of the districts could have lost, based on lawmakers’ analysis:

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  • Miami-Dade County: $71 million
  • Broward County: $32 million
  • Palm Beach County: $28 million
  • Hillsborough County: $14 million

None of the 12 districts that are targeted in the proposed $112.1 billion spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year have mask mandates at the moment. They all did away with their masking requirements after the Legislature passed a law last fall that restricted schools from imposing mandates in response to COVID-19.

Prior to that law’s passage, the districts were defying rules issued by the DeSantis administration that invoked a “Parent’s Bill of Rights” law. DeSantis and Republican lawmakers said districts were violating that law, but districts maintained they were in compliance because the law said the action was “reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest.”

Related: DeSantis chides students for wearing masks at his Tampa news conference

DeSantis, who has veto power over the budget proposal, has been supportive of holding the 12 districts accountable for their masking policies. But he has spoken out against the idea of taking money from schools that “may penalize a teacher or student because of actions of some union-controlled school board members.”

“My view would be — let’s not do that,” DeSantis said at a news conference in February as the initial proposal was being vetted by the Legislature.

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