TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration backed down from its threat to withhold school officials’ salaries if they resist his anti-mask rule, saying instead that the defiant officials should be responsible for the “consequences of their decisions.”
The move by the governor’s office represents a tacit acknowledgement that it legally can’t take away the salaries of school board members and others despite previously threatening to. DeSantis could levy hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines against school districts for disobeying his mask orders, but it would be up for the board leaders themselves to cut their own pay.
“The entire school district community shouldn’t suffer just because a few activist, anti-science school board members want to impose overreaching mandates on every student,” said DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw in a statement to POLITICO.
In her statement, Pushaw said the education officials in question “are not on the state payroll, so this form of penalty is the most narrowly tailored approach that the state can take.”
The Miami Herald was first to report that the DeSantis administration was tempering its threat.
DeSantis and local school board members have been squabbling over mask rules in recent weeks as campuses across Florida began welcoming students for the fall semester. The Republican governor opposes blanket mask mandates for students despite the Delta variant of Covid-19 that is sweeping the state, and threatened to take away funding from districts as well as salaries of officials. Several districts, including Broward County — the second largest school district in the state — stated they would push forward with mask mandates for all students regardless of the consequences.
The fight over masks in schools has even drawn in the White House and President Joe Biden, with his administration attacking DeSantis almost daily for the GOP governor’s hands-off approach to the surging virus.
Thursday’s admission marks the second retrenchment by DeSantis, who initially touted the mask ban as a hard-and-fast rule, only to later acknowledge that schools could require masks and that parents would then have to opt out.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat running for governor against DeSantis, said the governor’s efforts against local school mask mandates is “unconstitutional and unconscionable.” Fried recently sparred on Twitter with Pushaw over the threat of schools losing state funding over mask policies.
Pushaw claimed Fried was pushing “disinformation” and that schools wouldn’t be defunded. Yet the acknowledgement from DeSantis administration on Thursday indicates that while the state could pull funding equal to the salaries of board members, it can’t directly strip their pay.
“It’s like he’s over there screaming ‘ready, fire, aim!’ at whatever divisive partisan squirrel of an idea he hears on Fox News,” Fried said Thursday.
Most school districts in Florida have made masks optional for students, or they are permitted to opt-out of wearing the face coverings with a simple parent form. But school leaders in Alachua and Broward counties currently have policies in violation of Florida’s emergency rules against mask mandates.
In both cases, Florida’s Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran is threatening to unleash the “maximum” penalties possible. That hardline caused Leon County to walk back its rule requiring students to provide clearance from a medical professional to opt out of wearing a mask.
Alachua’s school board is sticking with its mask policy in the face of the threats from the Department of Education. The school board asked the DeSantis administration to “consider the appropriateness” of withholding hundreds of thousands of dollars from the district.
“Neither the Florida Department of Education nor the Board of Education control the payroll distribution of school districts,” Alachua school leaders wrote in a letter Tuesday.
Broward County’s board, which enacted a full blown mask mandate for all students, has until Friday to respond to the Department of Education.
DeSantis’ push to block local school mask mandates is facing numerous lawsuits, including one that was filed by parents and is scheduled to be heard Friday in circuit court.
Marc Caputo contributed to this report.