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In Escalating Battle, Broward School District Accuses State Of Withholding COVID Stimulus

Broward County School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood speaks during a news conference at the district's Fort Lauderdale headquarters on Friday, Sept. 9.
Broward County School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood speaks during a news conference at the district's Fort Lauderdale headquarters on Friday, Sept. 9.

The district says the state owes more than $200 million in federal relief funds. The state says Broward leaders are still sitting on $9.2 million from the first round of stimulus money.

Masks aren’t the only thing the Broward County school district and state education leaders can’t agree on.

The second-largest school district in the state, which is among the largest in the nation, is also fighting with the Florida Department of Education over federal stimulus money designed to help schools beat back COVID-19.

Broward leaders say the state is withholding nearly $234 million in funding. The accusation comes as the district has mandated facial coverings in schools despite an executive order from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis that stated parents should have the choice to send their children to school with or without masks. DeSantis’ position is being contested in multiple ongoing legal battles.

"This is about something that is greater than politics," interim Superindendent Vickie Cartwright said during a news conference in Fort Lauderdale on Friday afternoon, pointing out that federal stimulus funds have been made available for schools under both Presidents Trump and Biden.

"It has nothing to do with Republican, Democrat views," Cartwright said. "It has to do with, we are in the middle of a pandemic, and we’ve got to respond accordingly to what’s in the best interest of our students."

Cartwright said the district submitted its plan for how the spend the money to the state Department of Education for approval on Aug. 12.

About $22 million of the funding has been provided since Aug. 31, but hundreds of millions of dollars have still not been allocated, Cartwright said.

The district wrote to state leaders on Sept. 8 asking for the funding to be released.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Education said Broward leaders haven’t spent all of the money the district received in the first round of stimulus funding last year.

“The state of Florida has already released $62 million in federal funding to Broward County Public Schools. To date, the School District has only spent $52.8 million of that funding,” Jared Ochs, the department’s director of communications, wrote in an email to WLRN.

“We really aren’t sure why the school district would accuse the state of sitting on federal funding when the school district is actually sitting on $9.2 million,” Ochs said.

Cartwright addressed that criticism during Friday’s press conference, explaining the money has already been earmarked to cover specific expenses.

“The district has, though, encumbered the majority of these funds and is in the process of drawing them down," Cartwright said. "We have through next year to use any remaining dollars in last year’s distribution.”

Ochs also characterized the dustup as a political spat. He called the district’s claims that the state is improperly withholding funds “pure political grandstanding,” arguing Cartwright and school board members have “repeatedly shown that they only care about scoring political points and being noticed by their party leaders in D.C.”

School board Chair Rosalind Osgood said she was disappointed that state officials "questioned the motive of our request for the additional funding."

"I found it very displeasing, knowing how we so critically need those funds to hire additional human capital to help us at this time," Osgood said during the news conference.

School board seats are nonpartisan. President Joe Biden and his education secretary, Miguel Cardona, have reached out to local education leaders in Broward and other Florida counties, encouraging them to continue defying DeSantis’ ban on mask mandates.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education announced a new grant program to reimburse school districts if they face financial penalties for policies meant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

The grants are meant to replace the salaries of superintendents and school board members in Broward and other districts that have implemented mask mandates, after the DeSantis administration vowed to dock districts’ funding in the exact amount of leaders’ salaries.

According to the news release from the federal agency, the grant money will flow directly to the school districts, rather than through the state Department of Education, presumably in an attempt to stop state officials from withholding that funding, as well. Cartwright said Friday the district intends to apply.

During the news conference, Cartwright addressed a decision Friday from the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee allowing DeSantis' ban on mask mandates to take effect while the issue is litigated.

Cartwright said the district would not change course.

"We will continue to implement our current face covering policy," she said.

The Miami-Dade school district also plans to keep its mandate in place.

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.