State Withholds Money in Mask Disputes

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Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced Monday that the state Department of Education has withheld funds from the Alachua and Broward county school districts in amounts equal to school board members’ monthly salaries. The move was a penalty for the school boards requiring students to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, with exceptions only for students whose parents submit doctors’ notes.

In response, Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon wrote in a statement, “I’m very troubled by the state’s action. Our School Board members made a courageous decision to protect the health and lives of students, staff and the people of this community, and a court has already ruled they had the legal right to do so. They deserve praise, not penalties.”

This move might also motivate further litigation.

“We have already begun working with our colleagues in other districts to take legal action. We believe this is a necessary step to ensure that Florida’s districts have the right to act in the best interests of those they serve,” Simon said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order July 30 that sought to prohibit local school districts from enacting student mask mandates. The governor’s order triggered a Department of Health rule that said parents must be able to opt out of such mandates.

On Aug. 20, the Department of Education issued orders threatening to withhold funding equal to the salaries of four Alachua board members and eight Broward board members who voted for the mandates.

Corcoran’s announcement Monday came after Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper on Friday ruled that DeSantis’ overstepped his constitutional authority in issuing the executive order. Cooper issued an injunction barring Corcoran, the Department of Education and the State Board of Education from enforcing DeSantis’ order.

It was not clear Monday evening whether the announcement about withholding funds from the Alachua and Broward districts conflicts with Cooper’s ruling. The department did not immediately answer an email from The News Service of Florida about the issue.

DeSantis has vowed to appeal Cooper’s ruling, but a notice of appeal had not been posted on the Leon County clerk of courts website Monday evening.

“The withholding of funds will continue monthly until each school board complies with state law and rule,” a news release from the Department of Education said Monday.

 

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