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Board of Education votes to investigate Alachua County Public Schools and take all legal steps to enforce rules

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Today the State Board of Education voted to investigate the Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent and School Board and take all legal steps to enforce the law and the rules from the Florida Department of Health and the Florida Department of Education. 

In his introductory remarks, Chair Tom Grady said the board has “the power, duty, and the obligation to not only create rules but enforce them.” Grady said that two districts out of 67  “have taken a path that appears to be contrary to law” and that the issue is not whether masks are good or bad but whether these districts are breaking the law.

Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran presented his finding of probable cause, adding, “these districts, while well-intentioned, have not followed the Surgeon General’s” emergency rule, and neither district has produced documentation showing that they’re in compliance with the law. Corcoran went through the timeline, stating that he had sent a letter to Alachua County Public Schools on August 9 and had received a response on August 10, stating that the school district believes they are complying with the rules. Corcoran said, “Every school board, every superintendent, has to comply with the law.” 

In a prepared statement, Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon said, “We argue that we are in compliance with [the emergency rules]… We argue that [the rule] provides the access for the parents to opt out using the Hope Scholarship… Our county is in a state of emergency.” She added that “If a family does not want to follow the rules and policies of our district,” they have the Hope Scholarship option. She stated repeatedly that she believes the district is following the state rules. 

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During questioning from Grady, Simon stated that her interpretation of the rule is different from the board’s and continued to hold that the Hope Scholarship option satisfies the requirement that parents can opt out of mask requirements. She said that the courts would have to rule on the interpretation of the rule, stating that the interpretation is now “clearly in flux.”

Grady pointed out that her statement that the district is in compliance with the rules was in conflict with another statement she made about a lawsuit the district is participating in to overturn the rule.

Board Member Andy Tuck made a motion to “recommend that the State Board of Education use its enforcement powers to enforce the health protocols found in Emergency Rules 64DER21-12 and protect the rights of parents to make health and educational decisions for their children.”

After taking public comment, Grady said they have a duty to enforce the rules, so he amended the motion to “authorize and direct the commissioner to investigate further, to the extent further investigation is necessary, the conduct and acts of Alachua County, particularly the superintendent and the school board in Alachua County, and to take all legal steps to enforce rules of this board, rules of the Department of Health, and laws that have been duly enacted by the legislature, in accordance with the Florida Constitution, and that may include withholding funds from the district, although I would add a footnote that I do not want to withhold funds in a way that would harm any child in any district. It may involve withholding salaries, it may involve removing officers, it may involve reviewing district conduct, it may involve public records requests to see how monies are being spent within the district, including whether they’re being spent for public relations or political purposes, contrary to their constitutional mandate. It would include enhanced reporting and accountability to this board, and I would also add a report to the legislature, with recommendations to the legislature to act and to take whatever additional steps may be necessary, to the extent this board lacks the enforcement mechanisms to fully implement the constitution and the statutes and the rules of the Department of Health and the Department of Education and other State agencies.”

The motion passed unanimously.  

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