School districts in Alachua, Broward and Orange counties are joining forces in the legal fight over student masks as the showdown between local school districts and the state Education Department escalated Monday night.
Despite a Leon County circuit judge’s ruling upholding the right of school districts to decide whether to require students to mask up during the current pandemic, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced Monday night that school board members’ salaries in Alachua and Broward counties will be withheld as long as the offending districts do not let parents’ opt out of face covering requirements.
In Alachua County, the second school district to announce mandatory student masks, just after Broward County schools did, school officials said the three districts together hired Greenberg Traurig, a South Florida law firm, to represent the school districts to fight the Department of Education’s order. A filing on behalf of Alachua, Broward and Orange counties’ schools is expected later this week, school officials said.
Eight other school districts are in line for fiscal consequences. The state Education Department has given them until 5 p.m. Wednesday to respond to charges they are out of compliance with Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ order.
Alachua County Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon issued a statement Tuesday saying it’s too bad the debate has come to this.
“I’m very troubled by the state’s action,” Simon said in a written statement. “Our School Board members made a courageous decision to protect the health and lives of students, staff and the people of this community and a court has already ruled that they had the legal right to do so. They deserve praise not penalties.”
Broward schools Superintendent Vickie Cartwright said the names of students disciplined for not wearing a mask are being submitted to the state, as the state Education Department ordered. Broward schools intends to keep requiring students wear masks, unless they have a doctor’s note and re-evaluate changing that directive after Labor Day, Cartwright said.
Meanwhile, the policy is being bolstered by its practice, she added.
“Our quarantine data is demonstrating that the use of the mask is helping to minimize the spread of COVID-19,” Cartwright told Broward County School Board Tuesday.
The districts are awaiting Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper’s written decision, expected Tuesday, before filing the answer opposing the order reducing state aid by the amount equal to school board members’ salaries, said Alachua County Schools spokeswoman Jackie Johnson. That decision was delivered orally on Friday.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Education have stated they are prepared to use federal money to make up for any loss in salary Florida school board members face for requiring school masks. And Senate Democrats have said they are prepared to start a GoFundMe for school board members who suffer a pay cut.
Simon said, however, there is more at stake than salaries.
“We believe this is a necessary step to ensure that Florida districts have the right to act in the best interest of those they serve,” Simon wrote.
More than half the state’s students attend schools in the districts defying DeSantis’ order.