Gov. DeSantis, House tussle over $200M penalty for school mask policies
Ron DeSantis speaks as Chris Sprowls watches on. Image via Colin Hackley.

Withholding funds could deprive innocent children of school programs, DeSantis fears.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and House leadership aren’t seeing eye to eye on how to hold districts accountable for flouting state law regarding mask mandates.

DeSantis and lawmakers agree there should be consequences for districts that required children to wear masks this school year despite state orders otherwise. But after the Republican Governor asked the Republican-led House to rework its accountability approach, House Speaker Chris Sprowls office said the Governor’s Office is misinformed about the House proposal.

The House plan, called the “Putting Parents First Adjustment,” would dock a collective $200 million from the pay of high-paid administrators from the 12 districts that imposed mask mandates. The plan would use those dollars to reward the remaining 55 districts. Administrators making more than $100,000 annually would be subject to the reductions.

But DeSantis is asking the House to take a different approach.

“Rather than take money that may penalize a teacher or student, because of the actions of some union-controlled school board member, my view would be, let’s not do that,” DeSantis told reporters in Marianna on Friday.

The Governor’s alternative would be to allow parents whose kids were “illegally masked” to sue the districts over negative effects from forced masking. Reasons for a suit could include speech problems, emotional problems and physical problems.

“It would strike a good balance between penalizing the politicians who flouted the law but also not doing that in a way that’s ham-handed and may deprive some innocent schoolkid of the ability to participate in a certain program,” DeSantis continued.

The Governor’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, stressed that DeSantis doesn’t want to take away any funding from school districts. Sprowls’ press secretary, Jenna Sarkissian, countered the Governor’s Office’s assessment of the House plan, which echoed DeSantis’ assessment.

“The Governor’s press secretary is clearly misinformed about the House proposal, which specifically impacts school administrators earning more than $100,000 per year,” Sarkissian said in a statement. “The House proposal recognizes that these local decision-makers are the ones responsible for choosing to flaunt the law — not the students — and therefore it is the school administrator’s salary that is targeted and redirected to law-abiding districts in the House proposal.”

DeSantis said the House plan would be “penalizing financially,” a characterization House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Randy Fine disputed Wednesday as he fielded questions from Democrats over the proposal.

“The folks that had punitive actions taken against them over the last 12 months were the students that were in the school districts,” Fine said.

Fine told Florida Politics he was glad to hear that the Governor also wants to hold districts accountable, but that how to do that is “about the details.”

Ahead of the 2021-22 school year, DeSantis, the Department of Education (DOE) and the Department of Health began pushing rules to prevent public schools from mandating that students wear masks. The Legislature convened in the fall, at the Governor’s behest, to pass a measure codifying those rules and others into law.

Despite the Governor’s preference to not directly penalize administrators, DeSantis and DOE had been in a tug of war with President Joe Biden‘s administration earlier this school year over the DeSantis administration’s decision to withhold the salaries of school board members and superintendents. That’s a slightly different approach than targeting school administrators, as the House proposes.

Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee argued that withholding funds from school administrators could impact other school functions, putting Democrats and the Governor on the same page on that count. However, Fine’s approach would have schools withhold the funds from their central offices.

On Thursday, Senate President Wilton Simpson told reporters he had not looked at the House proposal that closely, but he gave his support to holding accountable officials that were responsible for issuing mask mandates. However, he did not fully endorse the House approach.

“If it is targeted … if any organization in the state is not following state law, and whether it’s a school board or a county or any other municipality, then I think there should be consequences, and what those consequences are (is) debatable,” Simpson said.

Renzo Downey

Renzo Downey covers state government for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.

One comment

  • just a thought

    February 14, 2022 at 7:57 am

    In a time of the mad scientist Santos is wrong wrong wrong shows weakness to mad science..

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