(The Center Square) – The Florida State Board of Education (BOE) convenes a virtual meeting Thursday at 1 p.m. to focus on a very specific agenda set forth by state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.
All 11 “action items” set to go before the seven-member BOE call for “Consideration of Probable Cause for Noncompliance with Department of Health (DOH) Emergency Rule 64DER21-15, Protocols for Controlling COVID-19 in School Settings” against 10 school boards.
The offending boards: Alachua, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach and Sarasota. Two of the 11 “action items” are lodged against the Broward County School District.
All have adopted mandatory mask policies without any opt-out options which Corcoran contends violates House Bill 241, the ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights Act,’ adopted by lawmakers during their 2021 session, and Rule 64DER21-12, which authorizes the DOH to issue rules governing “the control of preventable communicable diseases” in schools.
In August, the BOE granted Corcoran’s request to withhold funds equal to board members’ salaries from Alachua and Broward county school districts for violating HB 241 and the DOH order.
In September, the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) announced it would award Project SAFE grants to school districts being financially penalized by the state for adopting mandatory mask mandates. Alachua received $147,700 and Broward more than $420,000 in federal compensation for the state’s actions.
In “probable cause” letters to BOE members, Corcoran said the state needs to up the ante against the 10 offending school districts, by not only docking board members’ salaries, but by targeting “state funds in an amount equal to any federal grant funds” awarded to districts for not complying with state law and the DOH order.
“Should the State Board adopt my recommendation, I request that it consider the sanction of withholding state funds in an amount equal to 1/12 of all school board members’ salaries, as well as withholding state funds in an amount equal to any federal grant funds awarded,” he wrote.
Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper issued a 37-page written order on Sept. 2 that determined Gov. Ron DeSantis overstepped his authority in issuing a June 30 executive order allowing parents to ignore school-imposed mask orders.
Cooper determined DeSantis’ order violates HB 241 by referencing its first part, that school boards cannot “infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health” of a child, without including its second part, which states boards can take action without parental consent when “such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest.”
Because the original suit did not address Rule 64DER21-12, and later attempts to include it in the complaint were denied, Cooper’s injunction did not extend to the DOH’s rule.
Nevertheless, Cooper warned the state not to take any actions against school boards based on the rule.
“If the defendants strictly enforce the executive order, the Department of Health rule, or any other policy prohibiting mask mandates without a parental opt-out, then they are acting without authority and are refusing to comply with all provisions of the law,” he wrote.
Corcoran, however, ignored Cooper’s earlier request for restraint when he asked the BOE to penalize the Alachua and Broward boards and never mentioned the judge’s later admonition in his letters to board members.
“Every school board member and every school superintendent has a duty to comply with the law, whether they agree with it or not,” Corcoran wrote. “While the district school board may not agree with the safety protocols set forth by the surgeon general in rule, the surgeon general is the person who, under the law, sets protocols to control and mitigate COVID-19 in schools.”