Simon rebuffs state order to alter mask policy

The School Board of Alachua County will take up consideration of Superintendent Carlee Simon's contract at its next meeting.
The School Board of Alachua County will take up consideration of Superintendent Carlee Simon's contract at its next meeting.
Seth Johnson

Update (4:05 p.m., Aug. 20): ACPS Superintendent Carlee Simon released a statement Friday afternoon saying the district has “no plans to change our current masking requirement.”

Simon cited the dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases and quarantines and called universal masking “absolutely critical to keeping schools open.” 

“If necessary, we will pursue legal action to ensure that we maintain local control over our schools and are able to meet our obligation to provide a safe learning environment for all students,” Simon said. 

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Our original story (1 p.m., Aug. 20): 

The School Board of Alachua County (SBAC) must change its face mask opt-out policy within 48 hours or start losing state funding.

In an order of the State Board of Education (SBOE) delivered Friday morning, the board stated that the SBAC is in non-compliance with the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) emergency rule that requires school districts to allow parents to opt their children out of wearing face masks.

“The State Board of Education finds that the School Board of Alachua County’s noncompliance and knowing failure to follow the law unlawfully denies Alachua County parents and legal guardians of their right to make fundamental healthcare and educational decisions for their children by choosing whether their children should be masked in public schools,” the order said

The order, signed by SBOE Chair Tom Grady and vice chair Ben Gibson, requires compliance before school resumes on Monday.

“The School Board of Alachua County has 48 hours from receipt of this order to document compliance as set forth in this order,” they wrote. “If the School Board of Alachua County demonstrates compliance by this deadline, then no further action is needed.”

If the SBAC does not comply, the order demands the amounts of income paid to all school board members must be reported and, based on that amount, the Florida Department of Education is directed to “begin withholding from state funds, on a monthly basis, an amount equal to 1/12 of the total annual compensation of the school board, as an initial step.”

Those deductions will continue, “until the School Board of Alachua County demonstrates compliance, the State Board of Education withdraws this order, or when the rule expires or is withdrawn.”

At Tuesday’s SBAC meeting, in which the board extended the face mask mandate for eight weeks, SBAC Chair Leanetta McNealy said the potential loss of salary funding doesn’t affect the board’s continued policy of protecting students and staff of the school district.

“When it comes to the children, the families, the staff, the community, I’m here to tell you, take this little bit of money if you want to,” she said. “They would like all of us to be unseated because we are standing for what is right.”

Dr. Leanetta McNealy, Alachua County School Board chair

According to ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson, the four board members who voted for the mask mandate earn a total of $161,148. The state may withhold that amount in funding, but it cannot garnish actual salaries, as McNealy and Superintendent Carlee Simon noted in a letter to the state last week. The total district budget is $258 million.

The order said the withholding would only apply to the four voting board members, exempting new SBAC member Mildred Russell, whom DeSantis appointed Wednesday. It also sought to put limits on budgetary maneuvering, saying the district “may not reduce any expenditures other than those related to compensation for school board members” and may not reduce funds that would “impact student services or teacher pay.”

Last week the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners began exploring how to cover lost school funding, if the state followed through on its threats. The U.S. Department of Education also notified school districts that they can use American Rescue Plan funds to pay fines or replace funding lost due to mask mandates.

The SBOE order did not threaten to withhold funding for the salary of Superintendent Carlee Simon—who earns $175,000—but it did require her to supply details of any instances when a student not wearing a face mask was punished for not having a medical excuse.

“Upon request of the Commissioner of Education, an updated report documenting any instance of the School District of Alachua County’s enforcement of the unlawful face covering mandate policy against a student, including, but not limited to, instances of a student being sent home, reassigned, disciplined, suspended, isolated, stigmatized, warned or harassed because of the student’s failure to comply with the School Board of Alachua County’s unlawful face covering mandate policy,” the order said.

The order also stated that the commissioner of education will be monitoring and will continue to report to the SBOE the status of SBAC’s compliance to the emergency rule and that more sanctions and actions could be taken against the SBAC, “as necessary, to bring the School Board of Alachua County into compliance and better serve Florida’s families.”

The SBOE sent the same order to the Broward County School Board, which also passed a mask mandate. 

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