The Florida Department of Education has withheld state funds from Alachua and Broward school boards for adopting mask mandates that allegedly violate “parental rights,” even as a judge’s ruling last Friday stated that local boards can implement mask mandates.
That throws another wrench in the legal battle on mask mandates, local school board control, parents rights and the executive branch.
Two of the first school districts — Broward and Alachua — have implemented mask mandates that allow students to opt out on mask-wearing only for medical reasons. Those two districts, and now 10 more, have defied the DeSantis administration over mask mandate at public schools.
However, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper enjoined Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, the state Department of Education, and Florida Board of Education from imposing a blanket ban on face mask mandates by school boards.
The judge’s ruling on Friday was verbal and it will soon be in a written format.
The Florida Department of Education sent a press release at about 5:30 p.m. Monday, announcing that the school boards of Alachua and Broward County would not be receiving their monthly pay and the department will withhold the pay until Alachua and Broward adopts mask mandates that allow a parental-opt-out, not just a medical reason.
“Simply said, elected officials cannot pick and choose what laws they want to follow,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said in a written statement. He is referring to an emergency rule adopted by the Florida Department of Health which says that schools must allow parents the ability to opt their students out of a mask mandate.
The Leon County court case in the state capital centered around what’s called a Parents’ Bill of Rights, which passed in the spring Legislature and was approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
However, Judge Cooper concluded that governor himself had violated that law because it also lets government authorities impose reasonable requirements if necessary to achieve a compelling state interest as long as they are narrowly tailored and there’s no less restrictive alternative.
“The Parents’ Bill of Rights does not ban school board face mask mandates. The law expressly permits school boards to adopt policies regarding the health care of students such as a face mask mandate, even if a parent disagrees with that policy,” Cooper said.
A state order from the Department of Education is directed to withhold funds from the districts on a monthly basis “equal to 1/12 of the total annual compensation of the school board as an initial step.” The order includes the names of the board members who voted for the mask mandates and excludes those who didn’t.
There are eight board members on the list from Broward, and four from Alachua.
According to data from Florida’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, as of September 2020 (the data haven’t been updated yet for the new school year), Alachua’s school board members are each paid $40,287 a year.
Broward’s nine school board members are paid $46,773, according to the September data from last year.
Ten other school districts have imposed similar masks mandates, including Miami-Dade County, for a total of 12 districts that are defying state orders.
The other districts with similar mask mandates are: Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Sarasota, Leon, Orange, Duval, and Indian River.
This report first appeared on the website of the Florida Phoenix, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to coverage of state government and politics from Tallahassee.