Ease your mask mandates or pay up, Fla. Board of Education warns districts

Florida’s commissioner of education says he’ll withhold the salaries of school board members in two districts found to be in violation of the governor’s executive order banning mask mandates, but the Biden administration says the districts can draw on federal funds.

The state Board of Education ruled Tuesday that Alachua and Broward counties were not in compliance with the governor’s July 30 order because their district policies mandate masks for all students and require a doctor’s note to opt out, rather than simply a note from a parent.

Commissioner Richard Corcoran had previously warned that he was considering withholding salaries or even suspending the board members.

Calling it "unacceptable behavior" Friday, he gave them 48 hours to rethink their decisions or pay up.

"As an initial step, the Florida Department of Education will then begin to withhold from state funds, on a monthly basis, an amount equal to 1/12 of the total annual compensation of the school board members who voted to impose the unlawful mask mandates until each district demonstrates compliance," the state's notice warned.

Since Tuesday's Board of Education meeting, three more of Florida’s largest districts – Hillsborough, Miami Dade, and Palm Beach – all enacted similar policies. The state Board of Education has not yet officially reviewed those mandates, but the governor has already expressed his disapproval.

"There are parents who are sending their kids to school in ways that they thought were the most healthy for their kids, particularly these little kids -- kindergartners, first graders," Gov. Ron DeSantis said Thursday. "And they basically took that away from the parents. And so my view is that the parents understand what's best for their kids."

RELATED: 4 of Florida's 5 largest school districts mandate masks, defying DeSantis' executive order

Hillsborough County’s mask mandate is set to expire in 30 days, assuming the district’s quarantine numbers get to an acceptable level. As of Friday, over 13,000 students and staff were stuck at home because of exposure to the virus.

While debating their mandate Wednesday, the board discussed the possible ramifications from the state but ultimately voted 5-2 in favor.

"If we’re just asking for a 30-day protective measure, isn’t that the least that we can do for our children?" Board Chair Lynn Gray asked. "If it saves one life, 10 hospitalizations, isn’t that the least we can do?"

"I think this executive order really needs an interpretation by our judicial system to figure out whether this falls under state law or whether or not this is actual law," board member Jessica Vaughn agreed.  "So I don’t necessarily appreciate people saying that by putting the health and safety of our students first and our staff members, that that is an admission of breaking the law."

RELATED: Judge won’t dismiss parents' lawsuit over Florida governor's school mask-mandate ban

The Biden administration had already suggested sending federal funds to compensate local districts that have state funding withheld. The White House also said states banning mask mandates in schools could face civil rights investigations.

"We stand ready to assist any district facing repercussions for imposing CDC-recommended COVID-19 prevention strategies that will protect the health and safety of students, educators, and staff. To that end, we've also made clear to district leaders that any financial penalties imposed by the state can be addressed immediately using CARES, CRRSA, or American Rescue Plan funds," U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wrote Friday afternoon. "Today, I also spoke directly to the superintendents of Broward and Alachua County schools to reassure them that the president and his administration stand with them and with all educators who put student and staff health and education first."

According to the Florida School Boards Association, the school board member salary in Alachua County was $38,091 for the 2017-2018 school year, the most recent available. Broward's salary was $44,443.