MIAMI (AP) — Florida officials are threatening to withhold funds equal to the salaries of school board members if school districts in two counties don't immediately do away with strict mask mandates as the state continues to battle through high hospitalization rates.
School boards in Broward and Alachua counties received a warning Friday from the State Board of Education giving them 48 hours to walk back their decisions to require masks for all students, only exempting kids that have a doctor's note.
"We cannot have government officials pick and choose what laws they want to follow,” said Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran in an emailed statement. “These are the initial consequences to their intentional refusal to follow state law and state rule to purposefully and willingly violate the rights of parents. This is simply unacceptable behavior.”
Corcoran says the districts in those two areas are violating the Parents' Bill of Rights and a late July executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis that prompted rules limiting how far districts can go with mask requirements and other COVID-19 measures.
The Republican governor has pushed for school districts not to mandate masks for all students, ordering the state's health and education departments to come up with rules so that parents can choose whether their children wear them. Corcoran was recommended to the post by DeSantis and appointed by the State Board of Education in 2019.
DeSantis maintains that masks can be detrimental for children's development and that younger children simply don't wear masks properly. But board members in the counties of Broward, home to Fort Lauderdale, and Alachua, home to Gainesville, decided not to allow parents to easily opt out of the mandate as coronavirus cases began straining hospitals in several parts of the state.
Statewide, Florida is adding an average of about 20,300 new COVID-19 infections per day, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported there were 16,849 people in hospitals with COVID-19 patients, with 3,500 of them in intensive care.
Broward County has Florida’s second largest school district, and among the largest in the nation, with about 270,000 students and a $5.4 billion budget. Alachua County’s school district has about 30,000 students and a budget of $537 million.
Two other school districts originally started the school year allowing parents to easily opt out of wearing masks, but this week their board members imposed a stricter measure, requiring all students to wear facial covering unless they had a doctor's note. And the school board of the state's largest district in Miami-Dade passed a measure this week also requiring masks for all students and only exempting those with a doctor's note.
Because of the size of the school districts’ budgets, the cuts are more symbolic than harmful to the district. For Alachua, which has a $258 million general fund budget, its cut would be the equivalent of a 62 cent cut from $1,000. For Broward, with its $2.7 billion general fund budget, the cut would be the equivalent of a 14 cent cut from $1,000.
Corcoran's orders require that school districts provide information regarding the compensation of school board members that voted to impose strict mandates if they don't immediately reverse their decisions. It also outlines it will begin to withhold from state funds the amount equal to their monthly salary, saying districts are prohibited from cutting funds in areas unrelated to the school board members' pay.
According to the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, school board members in Alachua County make $40,000 per year and in Broward County, $46,000. The order establishes the punishments for all four members in Alachua and eight of nine school board members in Broward.
Associated Press writer Terry Spencer contributed to this report from Fort Lauderdale.
Adriana Gomez Licon, The Associated Press