Update: On Friday acting U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona distributed a letter to all school districts in Florida. He expressed support for universal masking policies and informed them of a letter he sent to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.
“As I made clear to them, school districts may use Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP Act) and other Federal pandemic recovery funds to support any activity necessary to maintain operations, including making up for the pay that the Governor is threatening to withhold from superintendents and school board members who implement universal masking policies that follow CDC guidance or to impose penalties that could take the forms of fines on a school district,” Cardona wrote.
He also noted funds could be used “at the sole and complete discretion of Florida school districts.”
Our original story:
The Alachua County Board of County Commissioners voted Thursday to explore mechanisms that would allow it to cover the salaries of the Alachua County School Board (SBAC) and superintendent, if they are withheld due to a face mask mandate for students.
At Thursday’ s special budget meeting, BOCC Chair Ken Cornell raised the subject during commissioner comments stating that he thinks the SBAC is “doing the right thing” by mandating staff and students wear face masks for at least the first two weeks of school as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Alachua County and across the state.
“There’s been a threat of potentially pulling some of the general fund funding for the superintendent’s salary and the school board members,” Cornell said. “If in fact that happens, I heard the White House chief of staff say they are looking at ways to fund school boards, directly bypassing Tallahassee.”
White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain confirmed Tuesday that the Biden administration is looking into reimbursing any officials who lose salary for establishing face mask mandates.
Cornell said he wanted to refer staff to research the legality of funding resources, “If it becomes necessary and Washington can’t.”
According to ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson, the salaries of Superintendent Carlee Simon and the current four school board members add up to $336,148.
Cornell suggested staff explore the viability of tapping into funding through the American Rescue Plan or Cares Act funds.
Commissioner Mary Alford said she supported the idea.
“I would like to make that motion,” she said. The board then unanimously adopted it.
The vote came after a week of back-and-forth between the state and Alachua County school officials, who voted last week to implement a mask mandate for the first two weeks of school. Gov. Ron DeSantis publicly criticized the school board for the move, which he said infringes on parental rights.
In a Monday letter to the school board, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced an investigation into the district’s mask policy and threatened to withhold salary funding. On Tuesday, SBAC Chair Leanetta McNealy and Superintendent Carlee Simon fired back a rebuttal letter.
Cornell said the BOCC’s move “sends a signal to our school board” that the county board stands with them in the decision to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
His message to the SBAC: “Please don’t let salaries or any threats stop you from keeping our kids safe.”
Commissioner Charles Chestnut agreed.
“There is an attack on home rule authority,” he said, adding he wants to see more fight from counties and school boards.
“It boils down to all of the 67 school boards coming together to fight,” he said. “We can’t be wimps. At some point the 67 counties in terms of school boards have to fight back.”