The Florida Department of Education (FDOE) has levied sanctions equal to both the salaries of Alachua County School Board members and the corresponding amount the federal government awarded to cover the garnished wages.
The news came in a Wednesday letter to Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS), which had been requesting the information for weeks. In a statement ACPS Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon blasted the move as unjust, saying the federal money has not even arrived.
"I am appalled that the state would penalize the district by pulling funding we have not even received," Simon said.
ACPS and other Florida school districts facing state sanctions say they were kept in the dark about exactly how much funding would be withheld. On Monday, ACPS Chief of Finance Alex Rella told Mainstreet Daily News that other than the first deduction, which matched the amount of the four Schools Board of Alachua County members, he hadn't been able to get an answer from the FDOE on exact amounts withheld after that.
"All the districts are in the same boat," Rella said. "It's been a guessing game."
Rella said the ACPS receives deposits from the state twice a month, but those deposits are a gross amount made up of funds pooled from many sources, such as property taxes, and can fluctuate.
The district received deposits on Oct 8 and Oct. 26 from the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP), which is where funding for operating costs of Florida school districts originate. But that deposit does not show any itemized sources or withholdings, Rella said.
"It's been frustrating for CFOs," Rella said about trying to keep tabs on the school district's accounting affairs.
Rella said he spoke with and compared notes with his counterparts at several of the other school districts the FDOE is sanctioning, which include Alachua, Miami-Dade, Broward, Orange, Duval, and Leon counties. Several agreed that they were not getting any answers on sanction amounts despite requests, Rella said.
In August the FDOE withheld $13,429 from ACPS, which amounts to the monthly wages of the four school board members who voted for face mask mandates.
On Tuesday, in response to an inquiry, FDOE referred Mainstreet Daily News to government affairs to ask questions and ended up filing a public records request asking for the amounts.
Wednesday morning Rella received notice of the sanction amounts withheld for September and October. According to the report sent to Rella from FDOE Deputy Commissioner Suzanne Pridgeon, the sanctions on board member salaries were $16,786 on Sept. 24 and $16,786 on Oct. 26.
The FDOE notified Rella that it also withheld $147,719 in funds to offset Project SAFE grant funds, a move state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran recommended to the State Board of Education in early October. Last month ACPS became the first district in the nation to receive approval for the grant.
"While the U.S. Department of Education approved an amount up to $147,717 for our district for this school year, we have not yet drawn down ANY of the grant funding," said Simon, who noted that the state has now withheld $192,000 from ACPS. "More than 75 percent of that amount is not board member salaries, but rather funding intended to support students."
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) said Florida issued a notice to the FDOE that it is out of compliance with federal law because it is withholding funds from Alachua and Broward County school boards.
"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," the DOE letter said.
Simon cited the letter's position in her Wednesday statement and said she expects the federal department to take action.
"I have already contacted staff at the U.S. Department of Education to let them know of this development," she said. "I am confident Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and his department will continue to support local school districts that have chosen to prioritize health and safety despite intense political, legal and financial pressure."