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Feds file a complaint to stop Florida's withholding of school board grants in mask fight

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Sarah Blake Morgan
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The U.S. Department of Education has asked an administrative judge to block the state from slashing federal aid money sent to the Broward and Alachua school districts over their mask mandates.

The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday filed a complaint requesting that an administrative law judge order Florida to stop withholding funds from school districts that received federal money to cover school board members’ salaries.

The cease-and-desist complaint was filed in the department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges.

Eight school boards face state financial penalties because of decisions to enact mask mandates amid the COVID-19 pandemic, although several of the districts have walked back or dropped mask requirements.

The penalties target amounts of money equal to school board members’ salaries. Offsetting the penalties, the U.S. Department of Education on Sept. 23 awarded $150,000 to Alachua County to cover the salaries of four school board members, and days later provided $420,000 to backfill salaries for eight Broward County board members.

But Florida officials this month decided to withhold state money to the districts in amounts equal to any federal funding they receive.

In the complaint Thursday, the federal education department wrote that it was notified by Alachua and Broward school officials that the Florida Department of Education “withheld from each (district) monthly state education aid” in the amounts of the federal funding.

“This action taken by the (Florida) department comes after we made repeated requests to work together and protect students, educators, and school communities. We believe Florida’s actions have violated federal law by reducing state funds based on the receipt by districts of federal funds,” the federal department wrote in a statement.

The State Board of Education approved imposing financial penalties on districts, citing a Florida Department of Health rule that said parents or guardians should have “sole discretion” to opt students out of mask requirements. The health department’s rule was issued, at least in part, with the goal of carrying out an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis aimed at preventing school districts from requiring students to wear masks.