The Florida House Appropriations Committee has approved education funding for the next fiscal year that reallocates $200 million away from the 12 school districts that defied the Legislature’s mask rulings to the 55 school districts that followed it.
The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) challenged the state in court and kept a mask mandate in place for most of 2021, meaning the district will lose $2 million in funding.
During discussion at a Wednesday hearing, state Rep. Randy Fine, R-District 53, who wrote the budget, said every school district would receive more money than the year previous, but the districts that required masks would receive a smaller increase.
The Miami-Dade district will lose the most potential funding at $71 million.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-District 63, asked Fine if the readjustment was punitive.
“This is the only vehicle that we as the Legislature have in any area, whether its education or otherwise, to hold folks accountable for following the policy decisions that we here have made,” Fine said. “I don’t think it’s punitive. I think it’s holding people accountable and I think it is saying that we expect the laws that we pass to be followed by all of our school districts.”
During a Friday press conference, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he does not support the effort to pull funding.
“Rather than take money that may penalize a teacher or student because of the action of some union-controlled school board member, what you could do is say any parent whose kid was illegally force-masked in Florida in any of those districts, they should have the right to sue if their kids have any negative effects of it,” DeSantis said.
Jackie Johnson, spokesperson for Alachua County Public Schools, said the funding cut coming on top of other impacts will affect students of parents who were both for and against mask mandates. She added that the funding cut felt punitive.
“Since it’s targeted only at those 12 school districts that established mask mandates to protect the health and safety of students and staff and to do everything we could to keep schools open, it’s hard to draw any other conclusion,” Johnson said in a phone interview.
She said the funding cut lacks sense because state officials returned salaries for school board members in the fall, but now the state will force penny pinching and perhaps job loss on school employees who had nothing to do with masking decisions.
Johnson said the school district is already dealing with higher costs for insurance, food, paper and computers just like everyone else.
“To add another $2 million loss on top of that is really a tough thing at this time,” Johnson said.
In Wednesday’s committee meeting, Fine said school districts cannot cut funding that impacts students as a result of the loss. Instead, the reallocation looked to cut from centralized offices where employees already make more than double the starting teacher salary.
Driskell also asked Fine about the students who will suffer the effects of the readjustment.
“It is the students who suffered under the illegal policies that these school districts put in practice over the last 12 months,” Fine replied.
He said he wrote the adjustment with students in mind so that school districts think twice before they break state law and harm students.
Fine said the fact that his own district in Brevard County would see a $4.5 million reduction in funds was evidence that this was not a partisan attack.
He also suggested that school districts could save money by not spending money in litigation costs against the state, which gave it the money in the first place.
Johnson said that job cuts, even in the centralized offices, will still impact students.
“These are critical functions of the district, and it is unrealistic to expect that a school district can function effectively and serve students effectively without those positions.”
The fight over masks in school continued throughout the fall, with the district and state trading barbs in public comments and court proceedings. State and federal courts later ruled in favor of the states, and in November the Legislature passed a ban on mask mandates during a special session.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the governor’s quote.