Florida Withholds Money From Schools Over Mask Mandates

The Florida Department of Education has withheld funds from two school districts that made masks mandatory in classrooms this fall, state officials announced on Monday, making good on a threat that local school boards that required students to wear masks would be punished financially.

The announcement is the latest twist in a political fight over masking in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, issued a ban on masks in school in July, only to be swatted back by a judge last week.

Richard Corcoran, the state education commissioner, said in a statement that the department would fight to protect parents’ rights to make health care decisions for their children, adding: “They know what is best for their children.”

The penalty applies to two school districts — Alachua County and Broward County — that went ahead with mask mandates in defiance of the governor’s order.

The department had indicated that it would withhold a monthly amount equivalent to school board members’ salaries. In Alachua County, members make about $40,000 a year, and in Broward County about $46,000, according to the State Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

However, because the state does not pay the salaries of local officials, it cannot withhold the salaries directly. Mr. Corcoran had previously said that he might recommend withholding funds “in an amount equal to the salaries of the superintendent and all the members of the school board.”

On Monday, his department said that the counties had been instructed to cut school board compensation — and nothing else.

But the practical effect of that remains unclear. The Biden administration has advised that any school district that is stripped of state funding because of a backlash to pandemic precautions could use federal stimulus funds to make up the difference.

In a statement, Broward County Public Schools said it would continue to enforce its mask mandate for the time being.

Alachua County school officials expected the district would lose about $13,400 a month, the equivalent of the salaries of four school board members who voted for a mask mandate.

“I’m very troubled by the state’s action,” Carlee Simon, the superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, said in a statement. “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.”

The Florida Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Florida is experiencing the worst outbreak of the coronavirus in the nation. Over the last seven days, an average of more than 16,000 people have been hospitalized each day, more than during any other period in the pandemic.

Last week, a judge ruled against Governor DeSantis on the question of school mask mandates, ruling that Florida’s school districts may impose mandates on students to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The judge also issued an injunction blocking the state’s Department of Education from punishing local school boards.

The Department of Education planned to appeal, and on Monday announced that funding had been withheld.

The penalties would continue monthly until the school boards comply, the department said.

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