Panel: Federal funds for School Board members’ salaries don’t violate gift rules

But the state is determined to withhold pay in another way.

Score one for Team Mandatory Student Masks — sort of.

Broward County School Board members would not be violating state gift rules for public officials if they accepted their salary from the U.S. Department of Education, the state Ethics Commission ruled in a split vote Friday after a thorny debate that had two tie-votes.

Whether they will ever get their salaries is a different question entirely, though. And because the question arose from Broward’s vote to require students to wear masks, some Ethics Commission members didn’t want to approve the advisory staff opinion that the grant from USDOE to the Broward School Board in no way violated state gift rules for public officials. Commission member Don Gaetz of Niceville wanted to table the question at Friday’s meeting.

“Through this request for an opinion, we are being entangled, or someone is attempting to entangle us, in a wider political and legal debate,” Gaetz said.

In a word, it’s about masks.

The state Commission on Ethics Friday became the latest to be ensnared in the struggle between Gov. Ron DeSantis and a handful of school boards that have voted to require students wear masks in defiance of DeSantis’ prohibition against mask mandates.

Broward County School Board Chairwoman Rosalind Osgood asked for the ethics panel’s advisory opinion because of a $420,957 federal grant to compensate Broward School Board members who have lost their salaries.

The federal grant was announced after the state Board of Education took away board members’ salaries for their vote requiring student masks. Osgood said she just wanted to ensure the grant did not violate state rules that prohibit officials from receiving gifts worth more than $100.

There was no mention of masks in the advisory opinion from the commission’s staff attorney, Steve Zuilkowski. His advice: It is legal for School Board members to receive their salary, no matter where it comes from, be it the USDOE or a GoFundMe account.

Gaetz asked if the state DOE and the Board of Education had been asked to provide information: “Obviously there are parties materially affected … Has the Governor been given the deference to be informed of this matter?”

Zuilkowski said he was required to give the commission the best legal information, free from influence, and his opinion comes straight from his desk to the commission. And his opinion did not even have the word “mask” in it, only “face covering” in a footnote, he said.

Commission member Travis Cummings of Fleming Island questioned whether the School Board had been influenced by compensation to decide on masks.

“All one has to do is simply breathe the air and feel the sunshine and the rain to understand that the (Joe) Biden administration has made it very clear that the reason they are doing this (awarding of grants) is because they want to influence the outcome and support a decision with respect to the masks,” Cummings said. “How can we say there are no parties attempting to use funds to influence … a certain vote on a certain policy?”

The attorney pointed out that the decision was made before the grant program was announced.

Commission member Michelle Anchors of Fort Walton Beach turned the tide on the debate, though, saying that a third-party opinion in this matter was not needed and there should be no delay.

“The conclusion that is reached in this advisory opinion simply states that salaries are not a gift,” she said. “I’m concerned that the moral hazard here really is not having the moral courage to render an advisory opinion that says what the law does.”

Reacting to the news, a state Education Department spokesman said he did not understand why the question came up at all. Since the USDOE announced the grants for Broward County and $147,719 for Alachua County Schools, the state Board of Education has voted to reduce those districts’ state aid by an equivalent amount.

“That question of the state’s gift laws has literally nothing to do with the matters between the state and these districts’ violations of Florida Department of Health rules and the Parents’ Bill of Rights,” said Jared Ochs, spokesman for the state DOE. “These districts are violating completely different laws” than the state’s gift laws.

Broward’s Osgood said she is perfectly willing to go without her pay if it saves people from dying during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I just wanted to make sure there was no ethical violation that would come up later,” she said.

Osgood had also asked the ethics panel to weigh in on whether accepting salary money from a GoFundMe account would be a violation of state gift laws. Before the federal grants were announced, Broward Democratic lawmakers promised they would start such a fund if any school board members supporting mandatory masks were faced with receiving no pay. That item was tabled until next month’s meeting of the state Commission on Ethics.

Anne Geggis

Anne Geggis is a South Florida journalist who began her career in Vermont and has worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Gainesville Sun covering government issues, health and education. She was a member of the Sun-Sentinel team that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Parkland high school shooting. You can reach her on Twitter @AnneBoca or by emailing [email protected].


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