FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The state of Florida is imposing its first penalties against school districts that don’t allow parents to opt their children out of mask rules.
The state Board of Education on Friday alerted Broward and Alachua school board members that funding equal to their salaries will be withheld if they don’t change their stance within 48 hours, something Broward School Board members have shown no interest in doing.
Broward would potentially lose about $31,182 a month, which is equal to the monthly salaries of the eight School Board members who supported the mask mandate. The state will not withhold funding for the salary of Board member Lori Alhadeff, the only member who voted against the mandate. School Board members make $46,773 a year.
Alachua would lose $13,429 a month, which equals the salaries of four School Board members who supported the mandate, the order says. A fifth was board member was recently appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis this week. Alachua School Board members make $40,287.
“It is important to remember that this issue is about ensuring local school board members, elected politicians, follow the law,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said in a statement. “We cannot have government officials pick and choose what laws they want to follow. … This is simply unacceptable behavior.”
Corcoran called the penalties the “initial consequences.” The State Board of Education on Tuesday authorized Corcoran to explore other penalties too, including removing School Board members from office, conducting further investigations and preparing reports to the Legislature for possible action.
The orders say districts “may not reduce any expenditures other than those related to compensation for school board members,” including funds that would impact student services or teacher pay.
The orders do not call for withholding the salaries of superintendents, which was an original threat by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.
The move comes as more School Boards are defying orders by DeSantis and two state agencies to allow parents to choose whether their children must wear masks in schools. School boards in Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Palm Beach counties have passed strict mask policies this week that require most students to comply regardless of their parents’ wishes.
The school districts say mask mandates are needed to protect student safety, given the skyrocketing rates of COVID-19 cases, the lack of a vaccine for children under 12 and current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Whether districts could take money from their reserves is unclear, but several School Board members say they plan to forgo the pay.
“We knew this was a potential consequence when we voted,” board member Sarah Leonardi said. “If it means putting student safety and employee safety before my paycheck, I’m happy to do that.”
The Biden administration has indicated it would provide financial support to districts whose funds get cut over the mask rules, including allowing the use of federal stimulus dollars.
“Biden better step in,” Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, said. “This is deplorable. They get elected to do a job. They’re doing a job.”
Fusco questioned whether the state’s action was a violation of federal labor laws.
Leonardi said she’d accept that money only if it didn’t take away from funds that could help students. Board member Debbi Hixon said her preference would be to just not get paid.
“I don’t want it to come from anywhere else,” she said. “We teach students there are consequences for actions. When you do the right thing, you do it knowing what the cost is.”
The penalties would end once the districts comply, the orders say. School boards say the mask policies are temporary until conditions improve.
The two districts also must submit a report to the state identifying any students who have been disciplined for violating mask policies.
This includes any instances of a student “being sent home, reassigned, disciplined, suspended, isolated, stigmatized, warned or harassed” because the student failed to comply with the district’s “unlawful face-covering mandate policy.”
The number of students disciplined for mask violations wasn’t immediately available Friday afternoon. Fusco said she doesn’t think there have been any.
“We haven’t had a problem with kids not wearing masks,” she said. “No kids are being disciplined. They’re being asked to put the mask back on and that’s it.”
(Orlando Sentinel writer Leslie Postal contributed to this report.)
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