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State gears up to fight federal government over grant payments to cover school district penalties

Richard Corcoran
The Florida Channel
The Florida Channel
The aim of the state's enforcement is to encourage districts to comply with the law, "a value we all want our children to hold,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran told the State Board of Education in a conference call Tuesday.

The state says recent action by the two counties in the center of the conflict should end the legal battle with the U.S. Department of Education. If it doesn’t, the state will argue its case in court.

The Florida Department of Education is trying to quash a federal cease-and-desist order issued in a fight over local school mask mandates.

The U.S. Department of Education issued the order after the State Board of Education began withholding additional funding from Broward and Alachua county school districts.

The money was in an amount equal to what the federal agency had sent in grants to the districts to reimburse dollars the state board had fined the districts for violating state mask policies.

The state’s attorney, Steven Engle, says the federal agency is in the wrong for its efforts to circumvent the state.

 “The board has withheld funds to those school districts as a penalty for their continuing failure to comply with the laws of this state,” explained Engel, a partner with the firm Dechert LLP. He was hired by the state Department of Education.

“ Once they [the districts] come into compliance … then they will receive the withheld state money. The department, therefore, did not reduce any spending on these school districts because of the federal grants.”

A hearing is set for Dec. 10.

However, Broward and Alachua recently announced they are dropping the mask policies that made them noncompliant. In return, the state is releasing their funding. The state says the action should end the fight with the federal government, but if it doesn’t, the state will argue its case in court.

“The aim of this board’s enforcement is simply to encourage school districts to comply with the law, a value we all want our children to hold,” state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran told board members in a conference call Tuesday about the case. “Now, as you’re aware, during the enforcement process, the Biden administration made its best efforts to both politicize these issues and undermine the legal authority of this board, and indeed the sovereignty of the state of Florida.”

Board of Education Chair Tom Grady pointed to a recent state administrative court ruling that found against several districts that sued over a Department of Health rule that explicitly gives parents the right to opt out of mask mandates. Grady said the ruling showed the law is on the state’s side.

Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. When she’s not working, Lynn spends her time watching sci-fi and action movies, writing her own books, going on long walks through the woods, traveling and exploring antique stores. Follow Lynn Hatter on Twitter: @HatterLynn.