TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The State Board of Education on Tuesday ratcheted up pressure on officials in two school districts who want student mask mandates with exceptions only for medical reasons, floating the possibility that district leaders who defy state directives could be removed from office.
The board, during an emergency meeting, voted to direct state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to “investigate” the actions of Alachua County and Broward County school officials.
The result could include withholding funds from the districts, state board Chairman Tom Grady said, adding “it may involve withholding salaries, it may involve removing officers, it may involve reviewing district conduct.” The state board, however, did not impose such penalties Tuesday.
Grady, a former state House member, also said the board’s moves could include providing a report to the Republican-controlled Legislature to take action.
The meeting came as Florida continues to see a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations fueled by the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus. School districts in various parts of the state have grappled with the possibility of requiring masks to try to prevent the spread of the virus.
Gov. Ron DeSantis on July 30 issued an executive order aimed at preventing districts from requiring students to wear masks. The Florida Department of Health followed by issuing a rule that requires parents to be able to opt out of student mask requirements.
Tuesday’s meeting put on display a power struggle between the state board and local school districts, with the board asserting that Alachua and Broward officials violated the health department’s rule and a new state law known as the “Parents’ Bill of Rights.” Alachua and Broward want to require that students have doctors’ notes before they can be exempted from mask requirements.
Corcoran wrote in letters last week to Alachua and Broward officials that the state board would pursue financial penalties if the districts moved forward with requiring doctors’ notes. He threatened withholding “funds in an amount equal to the salaries for the superintendent and all the members of the school board.”
In his letters, Corcoran wrote that requiring doctors’ notes to opt out is “inconsistent” with the health department’s rule.
Both of the districts refused to change course last week.
The state board found “probable cause” Tuesday that Alachua and Broward officials “acted contrary to the law” by requiring doctors’ notes.
But Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon doubled down on an earlier argument that the district is in compliance with the Department of Health rule.
Simon argued to the state board that the Alachua district allows two avenues for parents to opt out: by showing medical reasons or through a voucher program that the state board expanded to allow students to transfer to private schools based on “COVID-19 harassment.”
Simon also said she and Alachua school board members are following their constitutional duties to provide a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system” of public schools.
“We argue that we are exercising our constitutional responsibilities to protect our students and staff. We believe this is ‘reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest,’” Simon told the state board, quoting from a part of Florida law.
Broward County Interim Superintendent Vicki Cartwright contended that the Department of Health’s rule lacked specificity and didn’t “prohibit us from requiring medical documentation” from parents wishing to opt out of mask requirements.
“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 in part.
The State Board of Education, however, argued that it has broad authority to demand local districts follow regulations it puts forth.
In a memo to the board, Corcoran quoted from a 2017 decision by the 4th District Court of Appeals in a Palm Beach County schools case.
“The Florida Constitution therefore creates a hierarchy under which a school board has local control, but the State Board supervises the system as a whole. This broader supervisory authority may at times infringe on a school board’s local powers, but such infringement is expressly contemplated --- and in fact encouraged by the very nature of supervision by the Florida Constitution,” the excerpt from the ruling said.
State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat running for governor next year, held a news conference just before the Board of Education meeting to object to what she called “unconstitutional threats” from DeSantis and Corcoran.
Fried has repeatedly said in recent weeks that she intends to work with the federal government to reimburse any school officials for financial penalties imposed by the state board.
“Schools need to be able to require masks, at least for now, for the kids who aren’t eligible to get the vaccine yet and those who are at a greater risk of getting sick from COVID,” Fried said.
In a letter to Florida district superintendents Friday, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote that the department “stands with you” in enacting universal student mask policies despite state efforts to prohibit them.