Miami Herald | By Ana Ceballos and Jeffrey S. Solochek, Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau | Updated August 17, 2021
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is formally recommending the State Board of Education “use its enforcement powers“ against two Florida school districts for violating the state’s mask orders, though he has not said exactly what he wants the punishment to be.
The State Board of Education is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting at 4 p.m. Tuesday to address possible sanctions against Broward County Public Schools, the sixth largest school district in the nation and the second largest in Florida, and Alachua County Public Schools.
Both districts are defying state orders by requiring parents to provide a doctor’s note before their kids can opt out of the mask mandates.
Corcoran said he has found probable cause that the Broward and Alachua school boards and their superintendents “acted contrary to the law” and a state rule that says districts must give parents the ability to solely decide whether their children should wear masks or not.
In a memo to State Board of Education members, Corcoran recommended the board “use its enforcement powers” to enforce the state rule and to “protect the right of parents to make health and educational decisions for their children.”
Corcoran did not suggest specific penalties for the districts.
But in stern letters to Alachua and Broward school officials last week, Corcoran said that if they continued to defy the state’s mask orders, he could recommend that the State Board of Education withhold state funding in an “amount equal” to the pay of the district’s superintendents and all school board members. Corcoran also said “the maximum accountability measure provided for under the law will be imposed.”
Corcoran’s recommendation to the State Board of Education is the latest push by Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration to prevent districts from imposing mask mandates. DeSantis has framed this as an issue about “choice” and “freedom,” and his office has supported withholding the pay of school board members and superintendents who don’t give parents the choice.
As DeSantis aims to prevent local mask mandates in schools, the Biden administration has recently signaled its intent to step in and defend districts that don’t go along with the state effort.
The Biden administration on Friday said it would allow districts to use federal relief funds to offset any financial penalties. President Joe Biden also called Broward County Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright to say he supports the district’s decision to stay the course on its mask mandate and reiterated that he stands ready to help with resources to ensure a safe return to in-person classes.
n response to the state’s threats, Cartwright and School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood asked Corcoran on Friday to “seriously consider the appropriateness of withholding funds,” noting that the funding reduction could impact services to students in the district.
Alachua School Board chairperson Leanetta McNealy said Tuesday she wasn’t surprised by the commissioner’s finding.
“I had hoped that the State Board of Education would finally see the light in that our district and possibly the Broward district we’re doing the best that we can in protecting our students and instructional staff … and our entire community,” McNealy said..
She was unfazed by any threat to withhold money from the district for salaries or otherwise.
“It would be worth losing that rather than losing the lives of our students or staff,” McNealy said, stressing that the district has support from the federal government and from the Alachua community.
McNealy expected to propose that her board extend its mask mandate when it meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday, and said she hoped her colleagues would agree.
Several other districts are watching the State Board as they consider whether to follow Broward and Alachua’s lead. The Hillsborough County and Miami-Dade County school boards are set to meet Wednesday, with both considering the possibility of mask mandates without parent opt outs.
The State Board of Education is scheduled to meet again in Miami on Wednesday at 9 a.m. at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus downtown.