School & District Management

Florida May Withhold Funds and Remove School Board Members Over Masks

By Scott Travis, South Florida Sun-Sentinel — August 18, 2021 5 min read
In this May 10, 2021 photo, Broward County School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood speaks during a school board workshop.
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As more school districts in Florida consider stricter mask mandates, the state Board of Education is threatening severe penalties for two districts that tried, including Broward Schools.

In a nearly three-hour conference call Tuesday, the state board voted unanimously to consider sanctions that include loss of funds, the removal of School Board members, more accountability, further investigations, public records requests to see how much money is spent on publicity, and a report to the state Legislature which could take further action.

The financial penalties may not be as severe as Commission Chairman Tom Grady said he doesn’t want to take money that hurt kids’ education. But the Broward district could lose $690,000, equal to the salaries of the superintendent and nine School Board members.

Commissioner Richard Corcoran told the board that Broward and Alachua counties both violated state rules that carry the same weight as laws when they mandated that children wear masks without allowing parents to opt out.

“Districts have a requirement to follow the law whether they agree with it or not,” Corcoran told the board.

Broward School Board Chairwoman Rosalind Osgood said in a text message Tuesday night that schools will reopen for the first day of school Wednesday with the mask mandate intact.

“The pandemic is traumatic enough,” Osgood said. “The recommendation of the Florida Board of Education to move forward is unfortunate. We just want to keep our students and staff safe and focus on education, mental health and supporting our students.”

The move comes as other districts could be enacting strict mask mandates due to skyrocketing COVID-19 cases as well as quarantines that are affecting thousands of students statewide.

Hillsborough and Miami-Dade counties both will have meetings Wednesday where they may require students to wear masks except for certain medical conditions. Lee County was considering the proposal Tuesday night.

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A Broward School Board policy, passed July 28 and reaffirmed Aug. 10, requires all students to wear face coverings unless they have exemptions due to medical conditions or provisions in their individual education plan, typically used for special needs students. The district cited both high COVID-19 cases and recent federal guidance.

Vickie Cartwright, interim superintendent for Broward County, told the state board that there are only five pediatric beds left in all of Broward County.

But Broward’s policy is at odds with a July 30 executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis, and an Aug. 6 order by the Department of Health, which require that parents be allowed to opt out under the “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” a law passed by the Legislature this year that gives parents more say on health and medical decisions involving their children.

The state board said law makes clear that districts must give parents who don’t want their kids to wear a mask an easy opt out.

Cartwright said the district found the Health Department rule ambiguous, saying only that there needs to be a parent opt out. The district is allowing opt outs for kids with medical conditions as well as exemptions in their individual education plans.

“If it was the desire of the Department of Health to require medical documentation or not require medical documentation, that language should have been outlined,” Cartwright told the board.

She also said case law involving Palm Beach County found that a face mask is not a medical device, so therefore it’s not subject to the Parents’ Bill of Rights.

School Mask Mandates at a Glance

Cartwright also said Broward parents overwhelmingly prefer mask mandates. Only 200 of more than 200,000 have requested assistance in opting out of the mask rules, she said.

Grady questioned health data that Cartwright and Carlee Simon, superintendent in Alachua County, were using. He blasted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an “agency run amok.” He cited research that claims “masking can harm children’s developmental progress,” although the American Academy of Pediatrics and other mainstream medical and research experts dispute that.

Grilled by Grady on whether the state has authority to make education rules, Simon conceded it does but added, “I also think it’s the state’s responsibility for providing a safe and secure public education.”

School masks have become a largely political debate, pitting Democrats, who generally favor mask mandates, against Republicans, many of whom argue it’s up to parents to decide.

Corcoran and state board members are appointed by the Republican governor. But the issue has attracted the interest of the state and nation’s top Democrats. President Biden has offered to allow school districts to use federal COVID-19 relief dollars to cover any funding losses from the state.

Biden called Cartwright on Friday.

“He expressed words of comfort,” Cartwright told the board when asked the nature of the call.

Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is running against DeSantis for governor in 2022, was one of the public speakers at Tuesday’s meeting.

“Shame on you,” Fried told the board. “How embarrassing that you are more afraid of the governor than you are for the lives of our children and teachers, who are getting sick and dying in record numbers.”

The Broward School Board has insisted that the Florida Constitution gives it control to ensure the health and safety of its students. But Corcoran argues that the Board of Education supervises the K-12 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,” Corcoran wrote, citing case law.

The State Board of Education may impose identical sanctions for the Alachua County school district, which is also defying the state rules.

Palm Beach County, which started school last week, agreed to let any parent opt out, which the state says complies with the law. The School Board may discuss the issue again at a meeting Wednesday.

Copyright (c) 2021, South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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