Florida officials withhold school board salaries over mask mandates

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida state education officials on Monday began to make good on threats to withhold funding from local school districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates, despite a circuit judge last week ruling the ban unconstitutional.

Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran announced that the Florida Department of Education has withheld an amount equal to monthly school board member salaries in Alachua and Broward counties, as directed by the State Board of Education. Funds will continue to be withheld until the districts comply, Corcoran said.

Broward County Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright said in a statement that Broward County School Board believes they are in compliance with the law.

“The health and safety of our students, teachers and staff continue to be our main priorities,” Cartwright said. “As such, BCPS (Broward County Public Schools) will continue to mandate masks, knowing the data shows they help minimize the spread of COVID-19 in our schools.”

DeSantis, a Republican who is eyeing a possible presidential run in 2024, had been threatening to impose financial penalties on school boards for weeks. Democratic President Joe Biden has said if that happened, federal money would be used to cover any costs.

School districts in Alachua and Broward counties were the first of 10 to require all students to wear masks unless they had a medical exemption in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Those districts, which include cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and West Palm Beach, represent slightly more than half of the 2.8 million Florida public school students enrolled this year.

Corcoran said those districts are violating parental rights by not allowing a parent or legal guardian to opt-out their child, as required by a Florida Department of Health emergency rule.

“We’re going to fight to protect parent’s rights to make health care decisions for their children,” Corcoran said in a statement. “They know what is best for their children.”

Corcoran said elected officials, like the school board members, cannot pick and choose what laws they want to follow. He said the board members pledged to uphold the Constitution but were not doing so.

Meanwhile, a Tallahassee circuit judge on Friday agreed with a group of parents who argued in a lawsuit that DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced. Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper said an executive order issued by DeSantis that served as the basis for the health department’s emergency rule is without legal authority.

Cooper said his ruling wouldn’t go into effect until it is put into writing, which he asked the parents’ lawyers to complete by Monday. Craig Whisenhunt, one of the attorneys representing the parents, said they complied and expect the ruling to take effect this week.

The governor’s office has said that Cooper’s decision wasn’t based on the law, and the state will appeal it.

The highly contagious delta variant led to an acceleration in cases around Florida and record-high hospitalizations just as schools prepared to reopen classrooms. By mid-August, more than 21,000 new cases were being added per day, compared with about 8,500 a month earlier. Over the past week, new cases and hospitalizations have leveled off. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services tallied 15,488 patients with COVID-19 in Florida hospitals, an 8% decrease over the past week.

School officials in Alachua County didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment from The Associated Press.