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DeSantis now backs Fine's House plan to withhold $200M from school districts over mask mandates

desantis fine combo.jpg
Florida House of Represenatives , Health News Florida
Gov. Ron DeSantis, left,who expressed opposition to Rep. Randy Fine’s plan on Friday, tweeted a statement Tuesday that supported the proposal, which would withhold $200 million from 12 districts and redistribute that money to other districts.

Bill sponsor Rep. Randy Fine says the reduction is only about 1% of the overall budget, which means targeted districts won’t get as much of an overall increase as others.

Twelve of Florida’s public school districts will see reduced budget increases under a plan moving ahead in the House. That proposal now has the backing of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who initially said he did not support reductions to districts that defied his effort to ban mandatory mask policies.

DeSantis weighed in on Rep. Randy Fine’s plan Friday, expressing opposition to it amid a concern that the targeted districts would cut student programs and even perhaps teacher positions. On Tuesday, however, DeSantis tweeted a statement that appeared to back the proposal.

“Thanks to Speaker (Chris) Sprowls, Representative Fine, and the House of Representatives for heeding my call to protect students and teachers from accountability measures affecting union-controlled politicians and bureaucrats who defied Florida law by force masking kids. Most students didn’t want to wear masks in the first place! Let’s also give parents recourse for harms imposed on their kids due to this defiance. They should get compensated for academic, social, and emotional problems caused by these policies,” DeSantis tweeted.

Fine’s proposal would withhold $200 million from the 12 districts and redistribute that money to the other districts.

“What he [DeSantis] was asked, and what we agree with, is that ensuring our proviso says these reductions in growth must come entirely from central offices … there can be no programmatical cuts in programs facing students. So, the governor is on board, now," Fine said to Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith in response to a question about why Fine was keeping the item when the governor publicly stated his opposition to it.

The school districts that defied the governor had mandatory student mask policies and did not allow parents to opt out of them — contrary to DeSantis’ directive that parents should have a say in whether students wear face coverings. The issue was settled in the courts, and during a November special session, the Legislature sought to curb local government and school district mask and vaccine mandates.

The plan has been branded as a cut — and it’s written that way in the proposal. It also comes as the Legislature is seeking to increase overall K-12 funding.

Fine, R-Brevard County, argued during a debate that the $200 million is about 1% of the overall budget, and what it really means is that some districts won’t get as much of an overall increase as others.

“I think the fact that the corporate media can’t do math is something we should look at," Fine said, pushing back against the money being described as a cut. "But as I said, in this budget, even with the 'Putting Parents First Adjustment,' every school district in the state of Florida will be seeing an increase. What you can say is, it’s not increasing as much as it otherwise would.”

Fine’s proposal targets district administrators, who oversee areas like budget, curriculum, safety and other aspects of running schools. On Monday, House Co-Minority Leader Evan Jenne blasted the proposal as extremely punitive.

“The one glaring thing is the House acting as judge, jury and executioner when it comes to the $200 million being taken away from schools if those school districts that had mask mandates. It’s an extremely punitive measure that is only there as punishment," he said.

Jenne had hoped the governor’s opposition would derail Fine’s plan. Now that’s no longer the case, the issue is likely up for negotiation with the Senate, which has no similar proposal. Senate President Wilton Simpson recently told reporters he had not seen it, but added that he believes in holding entities that violate laws and rules accountable.

Fine, the House PreK-12 Appropriations Committee Chairman, does not deny the proposal is a punishment for the districts that defied the governor. He said passing laws and controlling the purse strings are really the only two ways lawmakers can ensure local governments and schools are adhering to laws.

“It’s an appropriate function of the Florida House … to use that power of the purse to hold accountable those who do not respond to and follow the laws that we have passed and the laws that are out there. … it is the only method we have, as the Legislature, to hold people accountable and that’s what we’re proposing to do here.” 

The districts targeted by Fine’s “Putting Parents First Adjustment" are Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, Sarasota and Volusia.

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