Even as all schools comply with state’s orders, legal mask wars go on

court judge gavel
Two legal fights are still going on about who has the authority to order mandatory student masks.

By Saturday, all the state’s public schools will be complying with the Governor’s order that prohibits student mask mandates — but the legal mask wars go on.

The state Board of Education approved a motion Tuesday to “vigorously defend” its decision to withhold state aid from school districts in Alachua and Broward counties, even though it plans to give the money back. And the state Department of Education might file a suit against a federal program that gives money to school districts.

Blame it on the head-spinning feud between the state and the feds over student masks.

As Alachua and Broward schools defied Gov. Ron DeSantis’ prohibition against mask mandates, federal officials praised those same policies as complying with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the U.S. Education Department gave the two school districts $568,000 in grants to make up for the money that the state withheld starting in August.

As a result of that, the state Education Board ordered a further reduction of state aid for Alachua and Broward schools — in an amount equal to the federal grant. The U.S. Education Department then filed a complaint that the Florida DOE “cease and desist” from that additional recission.

“… The reduction of state aid based on the receipt of federal funds is a plain violation of (federal law) which bars states from “tak[ing] into consideration (federal) payments … in determining “the amount of State aid.” This action seeks to remedy that violation.”

This will not stand, said Education Board Chairman Tom Grady.

“We must vigorously defend the state’s authority to control its educational system,” Grady said.

The cease-and-desist order is scheduled to be heard Dec. 10 in front of the USDOE’s Office of Hearings & Appeals.

Steve Engel, a Washington lawyer the state has retained, said he expects the hearing will be delayed because of the changing circumstances. But nothing short of the state’s ability to govern is at stake, he told the Education Board. He plans to challenge the legality of the grant program that awarded Alachua and Broward schools for its mask policies.

“Congress did not give the Secretary of Education the authority to spend federal money for the purpose of undermining Florida’s sovereign right to set its own state educational policies,” he said.

The U.S. Education Department did not answer an inquiry about whether it plans to withdraw its complaint in light of the changing circumstances.

Alachua County Schools Spokeswoman Jacki Johnson said the district was pleased to hear that the withheld state aid would be disbursed; information the district received a few weeks ago, she said.

Meanwhile, four school districts are appealing Judge Brian Newman’s dismissal of a suit that insisted school districts have the authority to order mandatory masks for students in a health emergency. The case is currently in the 4th District Court of Appeal. School districts in Leon and Alachua counties dropped out of it, leaving school districts in Broward, Duval, Miami-Dade and Orange to fight on.

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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