Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran threatened on Monday to withhold funding equal to the salaries of the entire Alachua County School Board and Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon over a face mask mandate.
On Tuesday, Simon and SBAC Chair Leanetta McNealy responded to Corcoran's letter demanding an explanation for Alachua County's "glaring non-compliance" with a Florida Department of Health (FDOH) rule that gives parents the right to decide if their child will opt out from wearing a face mask at school.
The current SBAC policy requires medical documentation for an opt-out, but Corcoran stated that is "inconsistent with the emergency rule" the FDOH issued on Aug. 6.
"Like you, we are gravely concerned with the current situation," Simon and McNealy wrote in a three-page response. "Our concern is with the threat that COVID-19, particularly the highly-contagious Delta variant, poses to the students and staff in Alachua County Public Schools."
The response then cites the increase in local hospitalizations of 36 percent higher than the previous peak in January, the toll the cases are taking on local emergency response teams, delays in medical procedures by local hospitals, and previously healthy children being hospitalized, including some in ICUs.
The response also calls out the FDOH rule as being hypocritical.
"The Notice of Emergency Rule for 64DER21-12 includes the following language: 'This emergency rule is necessary in light of the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Florida and the urgent need to provide COVID-19 guidance to school districts before the upcoming school year commences.' This argument for the emergency rule contradicts the rule itself. If the intent of the emergency rule is to address the recent rise in COVID-19 cases, the Department of Health should be recommending protocols and procedures that reduce transmission rather than preventing school districts from implementing them."
The response letter asks for Corcoran to "seriously consider the appropriateness of withholding funds in an amount equal to the Superintendent's salary and the combined salaries of the members of the School Board."
According to ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson, those salaries total $336,148.
The letter goes on to note the salaries are outside of Corcoran's control: "Neither the Florida Department of Education nor the Board of Education control the payroll distribution of school districts."
Instead, the letter says any funds withheld would be removed from the district's general fund and would become a reduction of allocation.
On Wednesday Ken Cornell, chair of the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners—who re-declared a local state of emergency last week—said the commission will consider covering potential fines with American Rescue Plan funds.
“Threats to pull state funding which are ultimately being used to keep our kids safe, might qualify for federal Covid funding provided directly to the County," he said. "We are looking at it.”
In their letter to Corcoran, McNealy and Simon wrote that the school district has seen a "dramatic spike in the number of employees testing positive for COVID—more in the last two weeks than in the previous five months combined," including the death of two custodians. They said if COVID-19 continues to spread, more teachers and staff will be quarantined due to exposure, and that would make providing a "safe and secure public education to all students" difficult.
"Universally masking is the most effective strategy we currently have, besides vaccination, to meet this obligation," the response concludes.
Meanwhile, a complaint asking a court to strike down Gov. Ron DeSantis' executive order that preempts local governing bodies from mandating masks will get its first hearing on Friday.
In a statement provided to Mainstreet Daily News, attorney Charles Gallagher said the Circuit Court of the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County will hear his emergency motion for injunctive relief at 2:30 p.m. on Friday.
Judge John Cooper will hear the case. Last year he upheld a Leon County mask ordinance.
In his statement Gallagher also announced additional counsel who have joined the case.
"Retired Leon Circuit Judge Charles Dodson has joined Plaintiffs’ legal team as co-counsel," Gallagher stated. "Judge Dodson presided over last year’s teacher’s union suit for premature school reopening due to COVID-19 against Governor DeSantis and Secretary Corcoran." Gallagher stated.
Gallagher said Pinellas attorney Natalie L. Paskiewicz has also joined the legal team.