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Education commissioner threatens to withhold Broward School Board salaries for imposing mask mandate

School Board has until 5 p.m. Friday to provide written response documenting how district will comply with order

Broward School Board members were threatened their salaries by the state's education commissioner after voting to keep a mask mandate the defies the governor's orders.
Broward School Board members were threatened their salaries by the state's education commissioner after voting to keep a mask mandate the defies the governor's orders.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran sent a letter Tuesday to Broward Public Schools Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright and School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood to inform them that the State Board of Education has initiated an investigation into the school district for failing to comply with the state’s ban on mask mandates at public schools.

The letter came shortly after the School Board voted 8-1 in favor of keeping their mask mandate for the start of the 2021-2022 school year, despite Gov. Ron DeSantis signing an executive order banning such mandates.

Corcoran wrote that an order signed Aug. 6 by Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees “is explicit in its expectations for ensuring that any mandated mask policies imposed by a district or school ‘must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student from wearing a face covering or mask.’”

Furthermore, parents are not required to submit any medical documentation in order to opt out.

Corcoran warned the interim superintendent and School Board chair that they were not in compliance with the state’s rules and that they have until 5 p.m. Friday to provide a written response documenting how the district will comply with the order.

“Any failure to adequately document and substantiate full compliance with this rule will result in sanctions permitted under law in section 1008.32(4)(b), Florida Statutes,” Corcoran wrote. “Depending on the facts presented, I may recommend to the State Board of Education that the Department withhold funds in an amount equal to the salaries for the Superintendent and all the members of the School Board.”

Broward School officials said Wednesday that their legal counsel will respond to the letter and said they are willing to face the consequences of their decision.

“I can’t be bullied into a decision,” Osgood said. “And when you think about it, it’s our tax dollars from our property taxes and different things that go to Tallahassee to fund schools. So now the governor is going to use the taxpayers’ money to blackmail school board members to do what he wants them to do, which would put our students and our staff at risk. And I’m just not going to do it. It’s the good trouble that I’m willing to get into.”

In a special meeting held Tuesday, all nine board members lashed out at DeSantis for what they call government overreach and abuse of power following his executive order that forces school districts in Florida to make the wearing of masks optional.

The school board is seeking legal counsel because they want to challenge some of the state orders that they argue take away local control from the public school district.

“We are charged and we were elected to keep everyone in our school building safe,” board member Debra Hixon said.

Lori Alhadeff was the lone dissenting vote on the board. Alhadeff had initially indicated she was willing to support keeping a mask mandate as long as it gave parents a way to opt out. But the board voted to keep mandates and only allow medical opt-outs.

But DeSantis maintained his position Tuesday that the decision to wear masks should ultimately be up to the parents.

“We think it’s ultimately the parents’ decision. We think that this is something that intimately affects the health and well-being of young kids,” he said. “We had a whole year to watch how this has developed in Florida, throughout the United States and throughout the world, and I can tell you in Florida we had school districts that mandated it last year, others that didn’t. Same with private and charter, and there was no statistical difference.”

The White House says they’re looking for ways to help defend the district if it is stripped of funds over masks.

“We’re continuing to look at what our options are to help protect and help support these teachers and administrators who are taking steps to protect the people in their communities,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

Florida Senate Democrats also announce plans to launch a GoFundMe campaign to support public education leaders if the Republican governor withholds their salaries over the mask mandates

“If the governor chooses to defund public education and withhold salaries from educators as punishment for protecting students’ health and safety, we will fill the gap to support them in this fight,” state Sen. Lauren Book, a former kindergarten teacher, said in a statement.

The first day of school in Broward is Aug. 18.

Meanwhile, two other Florida counties that set mask mandates faced 5 p.m. deadlines Wednesday to similarly respond to the state.

Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, did a turnaround and put in an opt-out clause for parents in their mandate — so that county is now complying with state rules.

Alachua County, where Gainesville is located, said its mandate will stay in place despite the state pressure. So whatever happens next in Alachua may signal what will also happen in Broward.


About the Authors:

Amanda Batchelor is the managing editor for Local10.com.

Glenna Milberg joined Local 10 News in September 1999 to report on South Florida's top stories and community issues. She also serves as co-host on Local 10's public affairs broadcast, "This Week in South Florida."