TALLAHASSEE, Florida (AP) — Florida education officials Monday began to live up to threats to withhold funding from local school districts that defied Governor Ron DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates, despite a circuit judge last week found the ban unconstitutional.
Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran has announced that the Florida Department of Education has withheld an amount equal to the monthly salaries of school administrators in Alachua and Broward counties, as directed by the State Board of Education. Funds will be withheld until the districts comply, Corcoran said.
Broward County Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright said in a statement that the Broward County School Board believes they are in compliance with the law.
“The health and safety of our students, faculty and staff remain our top priorities,” said Cartwright. “As such, BCPS (Broward County Public Schools) will continue to mandate masks, knowing the data shows they help minimize the spread of COVID-19 in our schools.”
DeSantis, a Republican targeting a possible 2024 presidential election, has been threatening to impose financial sanctions on school boards for weeks. Democratic President Joe Biden has said that if that happened, federal money would be used to cover all costs.
School districts in Alachua and Broward counties were the first of 10 to require all students to wear masks unless they had a medical exemption to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Those districts, which include cities like Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville and West Palm Beach, account for just over half of Florida’s 2.8 million public school students enrolled this year.
Corcoran said those districts are violating parental rights by not allowing a parent or legal guardian to refuse their child, as required by a Florida Department of Health Emergency Rule.
“We are going to fight to protect parents’ rights to make health care decisions for their children,” Corcoran said in a statement. “They know what’s best for their kids.”
Corcoran said elected officials, such as school board members, cannot choose which laws to follow. He said the board members promised to uphold the Constitution but failed to do so.
In the meantime, a circuit judge in Tallahassee on Friday agreed with a group of parents who argued in a lawsuit that DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced. Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper said an executive order issued by DeSantis that served as the basis for the health department’s emergency rule has no legal authority.
Cooper said his ruling would not take effect until it is in writing, and he asked parents’ lawyers to finalize it by Monday. Craig Whisenhunt, one of the lawyers representing the parents, said they obeyed and expect the ruling to go into effect this week.
The governor’s office has said Cooper’s decision was not based on the law, and the state will appeal it.
The highly contagious delta variant accelerated business around Florida and record high hospitalizations just as schools were preparing to reopen classrooms. By mid-August, more than 21,000 new cases a day were added, compared to about 8,500 a month earlier. Over the past week, new cases and hospitalizations have leveled off. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services counted 15,488 patients with COVID-19 in Florida hospitals, down 8% from the past week.
School officials in Alachua County did not immediately respond to reports asking for comment from The Associated Press.