Updated: This story was updated Aug. 16 to include a letter from the U.S. Secretary of Education pledging financial support for school districts that defy state-level bans on mask mandates.
Will school board members and administrators have to pay up if they ignore states’ masking policies?
It’s one of the many questions that have emerged from this month’s raucous debates over ways districts should mitigate the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19. The debate involves fiscal punishment in some places for districts that don’t require masks, and for others in places where they do.
Washington state’s superintendent of education, Chris Reykdal, said schools that fail to comply with the state’s requirement for universal masking in schools could see an immediate halt to their state and federal funds.
Kelly Townsend, a Republican state senator in Arizona, said on Twitter that she would not vote to fund “any agency” that violates the state’s ban on mask mandates—though she later clarified her stance on schools in particular: “I don’t mean to completely defund. But financial sanctions must happen at this point.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last week threatened to withhold salaries from school board members and superintendents in districts that require students and staff to wear masks. His office has since backtracked slightly, urging school board members and superintendents to forgo their own salaries if the state retracts funding from their district as punishment for requiring masks. At least one district, Leon County, loosened its mask mandate in response to this order.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wrote last week in a letter to superintendents in Florida and Texas that the federal government supports mask mandates and will approve the use of American Rescue Plan funds to fill gaps left by state penalties for requiring masks.
Experts say it’s fairly unlikely that these money moves will come to fruition—though in some cases, it’s not out of the question.
“It’s tricky for a state leader to issue a threat like this and not follow up if they want similar threats to induce compliance next time around,” said Julia Martin, legislative director for Brustein & Manasevit, a law firm that works with school districts. “It’s really a political question rather than a fiscal allowability question.”
District leaders and school board members are wrestling with thorny questions about money even as they juggle the complexities of starting a new year of in-person school with high rates of viral spread.
The 29,000-student Alachua County, Fla., is defying the governor’s order and requiring masks in schools at least until the next board meeting on Aug. 17.
Even so, on the third day of school, more than 450 students were in quarantine due to a positive COVID test or an exposure to someone who tested positive, Tina Certain, vice chair of the district’s board, said in an interview. She recently attended funerals for a 15-year-old student and a school custodian who died from COVID.
Certain said she’s prepared to forgo her salary if necessary to uphold the mask mandate. She maintains that her district has statutory authority to require masks, and she thinks it’s critical to do so for the health and safety of the community. In addition to prohibiting mask mandates, the state also declined to approve the district’s request to offer virtual instruction this year.
None of the board’s five members depends on the school district salary for income, Certain said. But the threat looms large in general. “When you start to impact someone’s paycheck, that could be devastating,” Certain said.
Florida also recently opened its private voucher program, designed mainly for students who have been bullied at their local public school, to families that felt inhibited by their local district’s mask policy.
If students flocked to that program, districts could lose out on valuable state funds. But in Alachua, Certain said, only a handful of students have taken advantage of that opportunity—in part because most private schools in the area are also requiring masks, she said.
The governor’s current threat is to remove the equivalent of board members’ combined salaries—roughly $300,000—from the district’s general fund.
That wouldn’t make much of a dent in the district’s $573 million budget, but it’s not inconsequential. “I’m not sneezing at it because every dollar is precious when it comes to education,” Certain said.
Broward County schools, meanwhile, could see a comparable cut of $700,000, out of its budget well of more than $2 billion, for continuing to enforce a mask mandate.
Sorting out what’s possible from what’s likely
There are big differences among what politicians say they will do, what they are actually willing to do, and what they are legally permitted to do. Here are some early insights on how to separate those categories right now.
Can a state withhold federal funds from the district?
Yes, but only if the district violates a federal law. “When it comes to federal funds, the state is really just serving as a pass-through entity,” Martin said.
Would a state really dock pay for district leaders that violate a state policy?
There’s more precedent for something like this than for withholding money from an entire district, according to Martin. At the federal level, for instance, an obscure and rarely-invoked policy allows Congress to adjust a federal employee’s salary to $1, pressuring that employee to act differently or vacate the position.
“States are kind of loath to withhold funding to an entire school district because of all the people it would impact,” she said. “I think that withholding funding for a particular individual is something that a state might be more likely to carry out because it just impacts the individual who ultimately made the decision.”
If a state were to take this course, though, “it will ultimately end in litigation,” especially because of the high-profile nature of the issue, Martin said.
If a state cuts a district’s funding, how long would it take for the district to feel the impact?
It depends. In most states, school districts follow a familiar procedure when spending state funds: they obligate the money first, then request a “drawdown” from the state afterwards. States could decline a district’s drawdown fairly quickly. If, however, the states decides to cut off funding at a particular time in the future, districts might have more time to prepare—or choose to comply with the state policy.
Can the federal government use unused COVID relief aid dollars to cover salary cuts from the state?
It would be tricky, experts say, given that much of the money is designed to be spent on efforts specifically related to mitigating COVID-19.
Money can also be an incentive, not just a punishment
While district leaders in some areas continue to wrestle with states, others are using money as a reward for safe behavior around masks and vaccines.
The Bay County district in Florida last year offered paid leave for all employees who contracted COVID or had to stay home because of an exposure to the virus. The program cost the district $1 million, out of a $568 million budget.
This year, the district is taking a different course, offering paid leave for COVID-related absences to employees who show proof of vaccination, and to unvaccinated employees who have been wearing a mask during the school day.
The district currently estimates roughly half of its 3,300 employees have been vaccinated, though leaders have noticed an uptick in recent days as infection rates soar and several well-known and unvaccinated community leaders died. The broader community’s divide over mask-wearing is evident among students: One-third have been wearing masks so far during the school year, and the other two-thirds have not, according to Sharon Michalik, the district’s director of communication.
Michalik admitted that verifying whether employees who get sick with COVID were wearing a mask at work would be tricky. The goal, she said, is to reinforce the expectation that all staff members wear masks whenever possible.
“If you’re doing all you can possibly do to stay safe, we want to make sure we’re doing all we can do to encourage and support you,” said Michalik.
As if COVID-related concerns weren’t enough to worry about, the district is now racing to set up and provide staffing for storm shelters in advance of a possible tropical storm or hurricane in the coming days. Encouraging COVID-safe protocols at those locations will be extraordinarily difficult, Michalik said.
“It’s an interesting time to be in public education,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the August 25, 2021 edition of Education Week