Feds may intervene over school district sanctions

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) said Monday that Florida is out of compliance with federal law because it is withholding funds from Alachua and Broward County school boards.

Ian Rosenblum, deputy assistant secretary for policy and programs, delivered the message in a Monday letter to Florida Department of Education (FDOE) Commissioner Richard Corcoran. 

“It has come to our attention that the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) has recommended, and the Florida State Board of Education (FSBE) has ordered, through Orders DOE2021-4027 and DOE2021-4029 of October 12, 2021, a reduction in state education aid to the School Board of Broward County (Broward) and the School Board of Alachua County [SBAC] by the amount of each district’s federal Project SAFE grant award,” Rosenblum wrote. “Should FLDOE implement these orders, it would be failing to comply with federal requirements, in particular, section 8522 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended, which provides: A State shall not take into consideration payments under this Act … in determining … the amount of State aid, with respect to free public education of children.”

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Although the letter does not specify what will happen if the FDOE continues to garnish amounts equal to the Project SAFE grant reimbursement, it does state that “the Department is prepared to initiate enforcement action to stop these impermissible state actions.”

In August the FODE started withholding salaries for SBAC members Dr. Leanetta McNealy, Tina Certain, Rob Hyatt and Dr. Gunnar Paulson after the four voted to implement a mask mandate at the start of the school year, citing a then-surging pandemic.

The initial withholding was $13,429 per month—for an annual total of $161,148. This month Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) Superintendent Carlee Simon noted in correspondence with the state that the new monthly amount should be $16,786 based on the governor’s appointment of SBAC member Mildred Russell

In September, the DOE awarded Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) $148,000 through its Project SAFE grant program. The program reimburses school districts for funding withheld by a state government because of mask requirements and other COVID-related protocols.

The school board voted to relax the face mask policy for high schools starting Oct. 19 by allowing parents to sign mask opt-out forms for students in grades 9 through 12. But the policy of a doctor signing an opt-out is still required for kindergarten through 8th grades.

The SBAC is involved in a legal challenge along with six other school districts over the current Florida Department of Health (FDOH) rule that requires schools to allow parents to opt their children out of mandatory masking. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently announced that the parental opt-out issue will be addressed in an upcoming special session of the state Legislature. 

Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange, Duval, Alachua and Leon counties argue that their job is to keep schools safe for all students and that the FDOH rule is allowing parents to put other students at risk for COVID-19.

Administrative law judge Brian Newman will decide the fate of a challenge to a health department COVID-19 rule on Nov. 5. Last week he heard two days of testimony on the matter.

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