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Before the state board issued latest mask penalties, district reps make their case

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna asked the state board to take his salary, too.

One superintendent asks the Board of Education to take his pay, too, but was refused. Others argued their strict mandates were needed to protect students.

The State Board of Education decided Thursday to dock the pay of school board members in districts that impose mask mandates that violate state law.

But first, representatives from each county argued their policies were needed to keep kids safe and are legal under the Florida Constitution and new Parents’ Bill of Rights law.

RELATED: Board of Education will penalize eight school districts over masks

School districts in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach counties were found in violation of a Department of Health rule put in place to enforce Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order that requires parents to decide whether their children wear masks in schools.

Leon County schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna asked the state board to take his salary, too.

“As the only elected superintendent in this action, my salary should be taken along with the other elected officials," Hanna said.

The education board, acting on a request from Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to keep the current punishments in place, denied Hanna’s request.

The Department of Health rule requires a parental opt-out for mask mandates. The noncompliant districts are allowing only medical exemptions.

“Following this unlawful rule would have an adverse effect on the health of students and staff in our district,” Duval County Superintendent Diana Greene said.

She also cited slow contact tracing, high case rates and the deaths of 10 school district employees as evidence of the need for a mask mandate.

The cuts will cost Duval roughly $22,000, equal to one month’s worth of school board member salaries. The state board also authorized cutting state funds equal to any federal grants the district gets to make up for that loss.

Brevard County School Board chair Misty Belford described their crisis of soaring COVID cases in August.

“In essence, we opened our schools attempting to follow your rules with catastrophic outcomes for our schools and our community,” she told the Board of Education. “We had to take some additional action to avoid conflicts with our constitutional and statutory responsibilities and to assure the safety of our students and staff.”

The board also re-upped cuts to Broward schools, and then put Miami-Dade and Palm Beach in the same boat. All three districts are allowing opt-outs only for medical reasons, despite state rules saying parents should have a choice if their kids wear masks.

“We believe that our district is in full compliance with law, reason and science.” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said.

Carvalho asked the state board to delay taking action against the district until the end of October. By then, he argued, hopefully COVID-19 conditions will have improved enough to relax restrictions in schools.

“Tragically, since August, we lost 14 staff members and one student, and many more have been hospitalized,” Carvalho said. “We know masks reduce viral spread. Those who say otherwise are misinformed or misguided.”

The new penalties bring the number of districts out of compliance with state policy up to 10. Six of those districts — Leon, Broward, Miami-Dade, Alachua, Orange and Duval — are suing the state again over its mask mandate ban.

The districts will be penalized a month’s worth of their school board wages and whatever federal funds they receive to make up for that penalty.

The districts could lose state funding equal to 1/12th of their school board member salaries and more —if the federal government gives them grants to backfill the loss. Alachua and Broward are receiving $147,000 and $420,000, respectively, after they were previously penalized.

The districts in Hillsborough, Sarasota and Indian River counties had been targeted for penalties but were dropped from the state board’s list after officials voted to repeal mask requirements this week.

The state has given the districts 48 hours to drop their mask mandates or the fines will go into effect.

Information from Joe Byrnes (WFSU), Jessica Bakeman (WLRN), Lynn Hatter (WFSU), Claire Heddles (WJCT) and News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

Originally founded in December 2006 as an independent grassroots publication dedicated to coverage of health issues in Florida, Health News Florida was acquired by WUSF Public Media in September 2012.