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State Education Board Takes Formal Step Toward Punishing School District Leaders Who Mandate Masks

Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks during an October press conference at Bayview Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale where he and Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, announced a plan to raise the minimum starting salary for teachers.
The Miami Herald
Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran speaks during an October press conference at Bayview Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale where he and Gov. Ron DeSantis, left, announced a plan to raise the minimum starting salary for teachers.

The Florida Board of Education voted to punish Broward County Public Schools, and another school district, for imposing strict mask requirements in violation of new state rules, listing a range of possible sanctions including the removal of school board members from their elected positions.

“Every school board member and superintendent has the duty to comply with the law, whether they agree with it or not,” said state education commissioner Richard Corcoran during an emergency meeting held via conference call Tuesday evening. Corcoran is the former Republican speaker of the Florida House and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pick to oversee education in the state.

The state board directed Corcoran “to take all legal steps” to enforce the new state regulations, which guarantee parents the right to decide if their children wear masks at school.

Board chair Tom Grady, a former Republican state lawmaker, outlined the potential consequences they could face.

“That may include withholding funds from the district — although I would add a footnote that I do not want to withhold funds in a way that would harm any child in any district,” Grady said.

“It may involve withholding salaries. It may involve removing officers,” said Grady. “It may involve reviewing district conduct. It may involve public records requests to see how monies are being spent within the district, including whether they're being spent for public relations or political purposes contrary to their constitutional mandate. It would include enhanced reporting and accountability to this board.

“And I would also add a report to the Legislature with recommendations for the Legislature … to take whatever additional steps may be necessary,” Grady said.

During the nearly three-hour meeting, board members grilled Broward interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright and Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon about their districts’ refusal to follow the state rules.

For Cartwright, it was the start of just her third week on the job. She is leading the district while the school board looks for a permanent superintendent to replace Robert Runcie, who resigned while fighting a perjury charge related to a state investigation of the 2018 Parkland school shooting.

Cartwright argued the regulations were broad and did not expressly prohibit the district’s strategy of requiring a medical professional’s approval to “opt out” of wearing masks.

She also defended the district’s position by outlining the alarming COVID-19 conditions in Broward County, including increasing hospitalizations of children.

Cartwright also reiterated the argument she made in a letter to Corcoran last week: The district is facing a lawsuit from parents of students with disabilities and severe medical conditions who argue they would not be able to send their children to school safely unless masks are mandatory.

“When we start taking away the rights of students with disabilities — because we're unable to provide them with a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment — that is something that is very alarming to us,” said Cartwright, referencing federal laws that protect students with disabilities’ access to education.

At times, commissioner Corcoran and chair Grady insinuated that the superintendents’ defiance was politically motivated.

Local school boards members are nonpartisan elected officials. The state board is made up of gubernatorial appointees. DeSantis is considered a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

Corcoran began the meeting by denouncing the Biden administration for its offer to reimburse any Florida superintendents and school board members whose salaries are withheld because they support mask mandates.

“It's no coincidence that it's Florida,” Corcoran said. “I mean, they talk more about our governor and the state in their press conferences than any other state. We wonder why.”

Grady asked Cartwright about a call she received from President Joe Biden. Here’s some of that exchange:

GRADY: You've spoken with President Biden about this issue, haven't you?

CARTWRIGHT: I spoke with President Biden, and basically he just expressed words of comfort and support.

GRADY: So he didn't ask any questions about the emotional well-being of kids who may be unable to wear masks to school. Is that what you’re saying?

CARTWRIGHT: He was asking about how the community was responding to the decision that the board had made, and did we have a lot of people speaking out against face coverings.

And the response that I provided to him was that, overwhelmingly, the amount of communication that was sent to our school board was in support of face coverings.

In fact, we just this past week completed a survey of all of our schools where parents have called in stating that they do not want to wear face coverings. And we have a total of approximately 190 students out of our 260,000 student enrollment.

GRADY: So we, at this board, believe that our responsibilities are to the children. This is not a political undertaking. We are not partisan — as you are not, I hope and believe, in performing your duties and your services. But I'm curious how it came about that the president called you on the subject.

CARTWRIGHT: Sir, I do not know the background behind all of that. We belong to the Council of Great City Schools, and the day before, we had a conversation with the [U.S.] Secretary of Education [Miguel Cardona]. But I'm not really sure what the bearing is of that conversation on today's discussion.

GRADY: How did the call come about with the secretary of education?

CARTWRIGHT: This was something that was arranged by the Council of Great City Schools. It was all of the very large urban districts across the entire United States.

State agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried called in to deliver testimony during the public comment portion of the meeting. She’s a Democrat who is challenging DeSantis in next year’s gubernatorial election.

“I will continue to work with the White House to refund schools and make sure history records your unconstitutional partisan decisions,” Fried said. “I assure you that if you remove these duly elected constitutional officers, it will not hold up in the courts.”

The emergency conference call was held the night before the board will convene for its regularly scheduled meeting in Miami. The board meeting takes place on the first day of school in Broward, and on the day the Miami-Dade County school board plans to discuss its own mask policy.
Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Jessica Bakeman reports on K-12 and higher education for WLRN, south Florida's NPR affiliate. While new to Miami and public radio, Jessica is a seasoned journalist who has covered education policymaking and politics in three state capitals: Jackson, Miss.; Albany, N.Y.; and, most recently, Tallahassee.