Florida admits state cannot withhold salaries of superintendents who mandate masks in school districts

Days after Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order to ban mask mandates by local school districts and the state threatened to withhold school funding and school officials' salaries, the Florida governor’s office now says they have no control over local employees’ pay.

The state does, however, have the ability to withhold general funding for schools and is threatening to do so in the amount of administrators’ salaries.

Earlier this week, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran began looking to enforce Gov. Ron DeSantis’ threat to withhold the salaries of school officials that weren't complying with a state rule that banned mask mandates.

However, in a statement to FOX 13 on Friday, the governor’s office said the state is instead calling on "activist, anti-science local school board members" to dock their own salaries and the salaries of administrators who do not comply with the governor’s ban on mask mandates. 

"Those officials should own their decision — and that means owning the consequences of their decisions rather than demanding students, teachers, and school staff to foot the bill for their potential grandstanding," Christina Pushaw, the governor’s press secretary, said in the emailed statement.

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Pushaw said the state could "withhold an amount of funding from the district that is equal to the salaries of the superintendent and school board members. As you know, those officials are not on the state payroll."

In the weeks that followed Gov. DeSantis' executive order barring school districts from issuing mask mandates, there was praise from parents who were in favor of the governor's decision, as well as criticism -- from the federal level down to the Florida school districts.

On July 30, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order making masks optional in schools, saying it was an effort to "protect the rights of parents." He said it should be up to parents to decide whether their child should be masked, adding that he has not seen any study showing mask-wearing lowers the chance of outbreaks in schools.

His announcement took place inside a Cape Coral restaurant and came with applause from those in attendance, including parents.

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In part, the order directs state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to withhold funds to "non-compliant" school boards that impose mask requirements.

His order came after the Broward County school district in Fort Lauderdale voted to require masks. Other districts and colleges around the state were considering doing the same as the state's confirmed coronavirus cases grew nearly tenfold over the last month. 

Within the same week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that teachers, students and school staff members wear masks, as Florida and other states saw major increases in COVID-19 because of the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus.

After, officials in Broward and Gadsen counties decided to reverse their decisions to institute a mask requirement, based on the executive order was issued.

Meanwhile, on August 3, President Joe Biden openly criticized DeSantis and other Republican governors who blocked mask mandates in schools, telling them to "get out of the way."

"If you’re not going to help, at least get out of the way of people trying to do the right thing," Biden said.

The following day, DeSantis fired back, criticizing the Biden administration's handling of immigration at the US-Mexico border, claiming the president was "importing more virus from around the world" by letting migrants into the country. 

"Whatever variants are around the world, they're coming across that southern border," DeSantis said. "He's not shutting down the virus, he's helping to facilitate it."

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"If you're coming after the rights of parents in Florida, I'm standing in your way," DeSantis added. "If you're trying to deny kids a proper in-person education, I'm going to stand in your way and stand up for the kids in Florida. If you're trying to restrict people and impose mandates and ruin their jobs and livelihood; if you are trying to lock people down, I am standing in your way. I am standing for the people of Florida."

He finished by saying, "Why don't you do your job, why don't you get this border secure? Until you do that, I don't want to hear a blip about COVID from you."

On the day of DeSantis' response to the White House, at least three Florida school districts decided to defy the governor. One of them was Broward County, which decided to move forward with the mask requirement. 

Other school districts, just days before school began, decided against instituting a mask mandate despite doctors' recommendations. Some districts, such as Hillsborough County, will mandate masks, but parents can opt-out.

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On August 6, Florida’s Board of Education approved an emergency rule Friday that will allow private school vouchers for students whose parents feel their children are being harassed by a school district’s COVID-19 safety policies, including mask requirements.

The parents could request the vouchers under provisions that are usually used to protect children who are being bullied.

On the same day, the state Department of Health approved a new rule that, in part, requires schools to allow parents to opt their children out of mask mandates.

"Students may wear masks or facial coverings as a mitigation measure; however, the school must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student from wearing a face-covering or mask," the health department’s rule said.

While some districts said parents did not have to provide a reason for opting out, the superintendents of Leon and Alachua counties said parents would need to provide a doctor’s note. 

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DeSantis’ spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said that districts requiring a doctor’s note for students to be excused from wearing a mask are not following the governor’s order.

She told the News Service of Florida the state board could "move to withhold the salary of the district superintendent or school board members, as a narrowly tailored means to address the decision-makers who led to the violation of law."

The Leon County superintendent said he sent a letter to DeSantis asking for permission to enforce a temporary mask mandate but received no response. This week, Leon County reversed its requirement for a doctor's note, but Alachua County said it was moving forward with the decision.

Meanwhile, a group of parents and lawyers, including some from the Tampa Bay area, filed a lawsuit that night, just four days before classes start, challenging the governor’s order on mask mandates.

In response, the White House said CARES Act funds could, in theory, be used to pay salaries of school officials who impose mask mandates. 

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On Tuesday, Broward County School Board voted to maintain the school district's mask mandate.

"The action taken today at the Broward County School Board meeting makes it clear that you have no current intentions of complying with this order," Corcoran wrote in a letter to the school board. "There is no room for error or leniency when it comes to ensuring compliance with policies that allow parents and guardians to make health and educational choices for their children."

However, the school board chair Rosalind Osgood said during the meeting, "You can't ignore this pandemic. It's deadly, and it's getting worse instead of better and the more we don't use masks, the more we position the mutation of this virus to grow."

A hearing for a lawsuit filed by parents takes place in federal court in Leon County on Friday afternoon.

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Also on Friday afternoon, state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat who is running for governor in 2022, held an online news conference Friday and characterized the DeSantis administration’s interpretation of Corcoran’s letter as "walking back" threats to noncompliant school districts.

"To every school superintendent, teacher, parent, and student who spoke out against the governor’s unconstitutional and dangerous executive order: It’s because of your work that he has walked back his threats to punish school boards that are just trying to do right by their kids," Fried said.

In response, Pushaw said that Fried is "spreading disinformation," and refuted that DeSantis has softened his stance on penalizing local school officials.

"It’s not accurate to say that the state has "softened its stance"/backtracked/reversed/changed our position in any way, shape or form on docking the pay of superintendents and school board members who violate state law to impose forced masking on children," Pushaw said in the email.

Broward County School Board Chairwoman Rosalind Osgood, who took part in the news conference with Fried, also indicated that the threat to funding still hangs in the balance.

"They would withhold the funds that we have to take from our general funds and then in good faith, not to take resources away from the students, that school board members who chose to protect the people that they love … would not pay themselves," Osgood said.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.