FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. (WSVN) - The debate over certain Florida school districts mandating mask-wearing reached a boiling point when the Florida Department of Education stripped school board members in Broward and Alachua counties of partial funding for keeping their mandates in place.
Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran confirmed the state’s measure on Monday.
Corcoran issued a statement that reads in part, “We’re going to fight to protect parents’ rights to make health care decisions for their children. They know what is best for their children. What’s unacceptable is the politicians who have raised their right hands and pledged, under oath, to uphold the Constitution but are not doing so. Simply said, elected officials cannot pick and choose what laws they want to follow.”
Monday night, Broward County Public Schools Interim Superintendent Dr. Vickie L. Cartwright issued a statement in response. It reads in part, “The health and safety of our students, teachers and staff continue to be our main priorities. As such, BCPS will continue to mandate masks, knowing the data shows they help minimize the spread of COVID-19 in our schools.”
State officials had threatened to withhold partial funding equal to a portion of the salaries of school officials in districts that kept mask mandates in place.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made his intentions clear on the matter weeks ago.
“That’s what they are doing: they’re taking away parents’ rights,” he said.
The latest development comes days after a judge ruled against the governor on his move to ban mask mandates in schools.
“I’m requiring that the parties follow the statute, called the Parents’ Bill of Rights,” said Leon County Circuit Judge John C. Cooper.
Cooper concluded DeSantis overstepped his authority when he issued that executive order.
“A school district adopting a policy such as a mask mandate is acting within its discretion. It has been given this discretion by the Florida legislature,” said Cooper.
Many school board members have pushed back against the governor and his executive order. They cited child safety as their top priority.
“We felt like we were in compliance of the Parents’ Bill of Rights because, when you have such a bill, you have to consider all the parents,” said Dr. Rosalind Osgood, chair of the Broward County School Board.
BCPS board members met again on Tuesday, the same day Cooper is expected to file his ruling.
“As soon as that happens, it is also anticipated that the governor will appeal that decision,” said BCPS board attorney Marylin Batista.
Once that is done, a stay will be issued.
“The order from Judge Cooper would be stayed, and therefore, you would have to continue to follow whatever the prior orders that had been issued by the Department of Education and the Department of Health,” said Batista.
Lawyers for Broward County reminded its board members the oath they took was to follow the State of Florida’s Constitution.
Batista said the school board is doing just that.
“The language of the school board shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools was held by Judge Cooper to be paramount and to override — in this case — the actions of the executive order from the governor,” she said.
The Parents’ Bill of Rights gives school districts the power to make policy it considers reasonable.
Some district administrators have said that going without partial funding is worth it, if it means students and staff are protected against COVID-19.
“There’s no amount of money that someone could take from me that would force me to make a decision to put somebody’s life on the line,” said Osgood.
Once the appeal is filed by the governor and the State Board of Education, lawyers on the side of the parents who filed the original lawsuit will likely file an injunction.
Corcoran also sent a two-page letter to Miami-Dade County Public Schools officials. He has given them until Wednesday at 5 p.m. to reconsider their decision to mandate masks in Miami-Dade County or run the risk of getting their funding cut as well.
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