As the DeSantis administration threatens to strip salaries of local school officials who buck the governor’s masking policy for children, the Biden administration indicated it might step in to restore those paychecks with federal money.
The dispute between DeSantis and local school officials heated up Tuesday as classes resumed in much of the state. DeSantis pushed the Florida Department of Education and Department of Health on Friday to adopt rules giving parents the right to opt out of mask wearing inside school buildings.
Most districts have reluctantly acceded to the rules, requiring kids to wear masks but offering opt-outs at the request of parents or guardians. Broward County school officials voted Tuesday to mandate masks and if necessary, challenge DeSantis in court.
State Sen. Gary Farmer issued a written statement praising the vote.
“By standing up to the bully in the Governor’s Mansion like they did today, the Broward County School Board set a shining example for our kids. They sent the message that no person no matter how loud or powerful they are, can intimidate them out of standing up for what is right,” Farmer wrote.
“I am sure that after this the governor will lash out in anger as he usually does,” he continued, adding: “The governor has no authority to enforce his dangerous and politically motivated orders, and I am confident that the orders and any retaliatory action that he may take will not hold up in court.
In a letter to policymakers in those counties, Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran viewed that as insufficient deference to parental autonomy. He cited their “significant neglect” in responding to the new rules and said he was opening a formal investigation into the two districts.
“I am demanding that you provide a written response by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 11, documenting how your district is complying” with the rules. “Any failure to adequately document and substantiate full compliance with this rule will result in sanctions permitted under law,” he wrote.
“Depending on the facts presented, I may recommend to the State Board of Education that the department withhold funds in an amount equal to the salaries for the superintendent and all the members of the school board.”
Asked about that possible sanction during a White House press briefing, Biden spokeswoman Jen Psaki praised “the courage and boldness” of local officials resisting the governor’s policy.
Psaki noted that federal American Rescue Plan money intended to help Florida schools respond to COVID remains largely unspent by state officials.
“The question is, why not? And those can be used to cover expenses that come up in this period. They’re federal funds and they’re under federal discretion, so they just need to be distributed to these schools. We’re looking into what’s possible,” she said.
“Certainly, paying for salaries is a part of that — or it could be a part of that and could cover those needs for these officials,” Psaki said.
Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried, a candidate in the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial primary, praised the offer.
“My office and I have been working with the White House to find ways to support school districts that have had their funding threatened by our governor’s unconstitutional effort to prohibit them from following public health guidelines,” Fried said in a written statement.
U.S. House member Charlie Crist, also in the primary, remarked about the development on Twitter.
“Our governor is embarrassing us. Our president is leading us. Help is on the way Florida. I’m so grateful to President Biden and the local leaders standing strong against Gov DeSantis’ tyranny and disinformation,” Crist wrote.
Democrats in the Florida Senate, meanwhile, offered to set up a GoFundMe account.
“If the governor chooses to defund public education and withhold salaries from educators as punishment for protecting students’ health and safety, we will fill the gap to support them in this fight,” caucus leader Lauren Book, also from Broward County, said in a written statement.
The average salary for school superintendents in Florida is $163,532, according to Department of Education records for 2020-21.
That’s higher than DeSantis’ salary of $134,181, according to current data from the state.
Overall, average superintendent salaries in 2020-21 range from $65,534 in Glades school district in southwest Florida to $374,365 for Miami-Dade. In between, Alachua’s average superintendent salary is $160,000 and Leon County’s is $148,346.
Education Commissioner Corcoran’s salary is listed as $284,280, in state data.
In Miami-Dade County, where schools will open on Aug. 23, officials were also dubious about the governor’s policy but have yet to adopt a policy.
Carvalho did release a written statement to CBS Miami.
“We have established a process that requires consultation with experts in the areas of public health and medicine. We will follow this process, which has served us well, and then make a final decision. At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck; a small price to pay considering the gravity of this issue and the potential impact to the health and well-being of our students and dedicated employees,” Carvalho said.
He also remarked Tuesday on Twitter: “Threat-laced humiliation has not served and will not serve humanity well.”
Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, decried the threats.
“Florida school board members make decisions every day in the best interests of their students, and we reject the implication that decisions may be made on anything other than that. Board members to not make decisions regarding public health lightly, and they will continue to make the decision that they believe is right for their students, staff, schools, and their local communities,” Messina said in a telephone interview.
“It has nothing to do with their salaries.”
During her White House briefing, Psaki reiterated a point President Biden has made before in reference to DeSantis.
“If you’re not interested in following the public health guidelines, to protect the lives of people in your state, to give parents some comfort as they’re sending their kids to school — schools are opening in Florida this week, I know, in many parts of Florida — then get out of the way and let local officials do their job to keep students safe. This is serious and we’re talking about people’s lives,” she said.
Here’s a list from the Department of Education showing average superintendent salaries from 2020-21:
DISTRICT 2020-21 SUPERINTENDENT AVERAGE SALARY
- MIAMI-DADE 374,365
- BROWARD 356,201
- ORANGE 347,615
- HILLSBOROUGH 309,996
- PINELLAS 308,993
- PALM BEACH 306,168
- DUVAL 275,000
- COLLIER 268,483
- SEMINOLE 247,997
- POLK 238,000
- BREVARD 216,720
- SARASOTA 215,000
- MARION 210,000
- LEE 209,000
- OSCEOLA 207,532
- VOLUSIA 205,000
- MANATEE 204,918
- ST. LUCIE 198,119
- LAKE 195,000
- INDIAN RIVER 180,000
- SUWANNEE 173,717
- CHARLOTTE 173,195
- MARTIN 169,999
- MONROE 168,600
- HERNANDO 168,000
- ST. JOHNS 165,000
- ALACHUA 160,000
- ESCAMBIA 160,000
- PASCO 158,992
- SUMTER 154,598
- LEON 148,246
- CLAY 142,260
- OKALOOSA 142,148
- SANTA ROSA 138,565
- BAY 137,120
- FLAGLER 135,000
- CITRUS 134,721
- WAKULLA 130,819
- PUTNAM 130,661
- NASSAU 126,460
- COLUMBIA 124,971
- HIGHLANDS 123,974
- WALTON 122,040
- HENDRY 121,146
- GADSDEN 118,296
- HARDEE 118,229
- JACKSON 116,693
- BAKER 115,202
- LEVY 114,614
- DESOTO 112,676
- BRADFORD 109,956
- OKEECHOBEE 109,931
- WASHINGTON 108,742
- TAYLOR 107,664
- HOLMES 106,777
- MADISON 106,601
- GULF 106,211
- GILCHRIST 105,936
- DIXIE 105,510
- UNION 105,102
- JEFFERSON 104,835
- HAMILTON 104,769
- FRANKLIN 103,913
- LIBERTY 102,623
- LAFAYETTE 102,516
- CALHOUN 100,378
- GLADES 64,534
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.