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State Board of Education votes to withhold additional funds from Alachua County Public Schools

File photo: Alachua County School Board

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The Florida State Board of Education met today to consider the compliance of school districts, including Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach, and Sarasota with the Department of Health’s Emergency Rule 64DER21-15 and the Department of Health’s former Emergency Rule 64DER 21-12.

Board of Education Chair Tom Grady began the meeting by stating that the school districts of Hillsborough County, Indian River County, and Sarasota County had been removed from the agenda because they had come into compliance with the Department of Health’s emergency rule. That left eight school districts. 

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The Board’s General Counsel stated that Article 9, Section 2 of the Florida Constitution gives the State Board of Education authority to supervise Florida’s free system of education, as provided by law. Section 1008.32 of Florida Statutes sets out the process followed in the meeting held today: The Commissioner investigates allegations of non-compliance with law or rule; the Commissioner determines whether there is probable cause to find that a district failed to follow the law and reports a determination of probable cause to the State Board of Education; the Board considers the recommendation and information provided by the district to determine whether the district has acted contrary to the law; if so, the district must document compliance within the time specified by the Board. If a district is unwilling or unable to document compliance with the law within the time specified, the Board has the authority to order actions that are designed to encourage compliance with the law, including withholding state funds, reporting to the legislature, and reporting to the Commissioner of Education. 

Richard Corcoran, Commissioner of Education, said that the Florida Surgeon General provides direction for controlling communicable diseases in public schools. He added that districts can’t pick and choose which parts of the law they want to follow. 

Corcoran also gave some data about COVID-19 cases in Florida’s school districts. He said that districts with no mask policy or parental opt-outs have seen an average decrease of 65% in positivity from the week ending August 19 to the week ending September 30. Districts with no parental opt-out have seen an average decrease of 67%. Cases in ages 5-17 in opt-out or no-policy districts have decreased an average of 79.4% from September 1 to September 29, while cases in counties with no opt-out have decreased 76.5%. “This is to say, unsurprisingly, and as we’ve said all along, we’ve seen no impact of forced masking in schools. This is also not surprising since there were no statistical differences in case rates in schools during the ’20-’21 school year.”

The Board then took public comment for 30 minutes, with each caller getting one minute to talk about whether any of the school districts are in compliance with the rule. There were four callers from Alachua County.

Jeff Childers, an attorney who is representing parents who are suing the school board, pointed out that Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon had an op-ed in the Washington Post and other media appearances in which she said that she was defying Florida’s emergency rules. A second caller from Alachua County. Dr. Crystal Tessman, Service Unit Director for the Alachua County Education Association, said the district is in compliance with the law because students can opt out of masking with the Hope Scholarship: “Alachua County is keeping all kids safe legally.”

Lauren DePaola, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Chair of Moms For Liberty Alachua County, said Alachua County continues to be out of compliance with state rules and that the Simon has “effectively sold” parents’ rights to determine whether their children should be masked or quarantined by replacing the funds withheld by the state with federal Project SAFE funds. She said she also believes that Simon is out of compliance with her contract. She asked that the Board immediately remove Simon and the board members who had voted for the masking policies. A woman who identified herself as “Stacey” said Alachua County Public Schools is ignoring parental rights and having people escorted out of school board meetings. She agreed that the district doesn’t care about having money withheld “so we ask you to take swift action against these school boards.”

Corcoran then presented his findings and recommendations for Alachua County: “This district has not come forward with documentation to establish compliance with the law… As the Board may have heard, the United States Department of Education instituted a new grant program. The grant program is entitled ‘The Project to Support America’s Families and Educators,’ Project SAFE. Eligibility for the grant requires that a school district implement CDC-recommended strategies, including ‘consistent and correct mask use,’ and the school district incur a financial penalty by the state, such as a reduction in funding… School districts are eligible for the award as long as they commit to maintaining the CDC strategy in the ’21-’22 school year. To date, Alachua County is one of only two school districts in the entire nation to have applied and been awarded a grant, which was in the amount of $147,719.

“I strongly believe that this federal grant program improperly attempts to interfere with the State Board’s authority to manage our state’s educational system. Education is a state responsibility, not a federal one, and one given to this Board under our state’s constitution. What we are witnessing in these Project SAFE grants is one of the most egregious violations of the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Florida sovereignty in our lifetimes. By their own terms, these grants encourage school districts to violate Florida law… If the federal government can simply backfill or buy off school districts with grants, then this Board’s enforcement authority is, in essence, neutralized, nullified, and abolished. Floridians should be offended by the Biden administration’s use of federal taxes in an attempt to make the enforcement of Florida’s laws so ineffective.”

A motion was made and seconded to approve Corcoran’s findings and recommendation.

Superintendent Carlee Simon then had an opportunity to speak, saying, “We believe [our policies] comply with the statutory requirements and the Parents’ Bill of Rights; they are also necessary to meet our students’ constitutional right to safe and secure schools.” She argued  that the current policies “are reasonable and necessary to protect the health and safety of our students, which is certainly a compelling interest. They have also been narrowly tailored, based on the specific circumstances in our community… [The current rule] is careless, dangerous, and actually increases the risk of spreading COVID. Regrettably, it seems that our Surgeon General has prioritized support for the governor’s political agenda over the health and safety of the citizens of Florida, including our children.” She then started talking about Florida’s reported failure to apply for the American Rescue Plan ESSER funding, but Grady cut her off because that topic was not on the agenda.

Corcoran then said her statement was moot because “there’s already been articles written about us applying, so if they could just get caught up with the media and then do a little research and then come back to us, that would be helpful, but their point’s completely moot and incorrect.”

The Board voted unanimously to impose the sanction recommended by Corcoran, which was to withhold 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 to the Alachua County School Board for its noncompliance with Emergency Rule 64DER21-15. This includes amounts equal to any Project SAFE grant funds or successor grants. 

Similar findings and votes were taken for all the other school districts on the agenda.

Once finalized, the Orders will be uploaded to this site

Simon released the following statement after the meeting: “Despite the state Board’s action, ACPS will maintain its current masking protocols. We believe those protocols comply with state law and our constitutional obligation to provide students with a safe learning environment.

“ACPS is one of two districts that have already had state funding withheld over this issue. Just a few weeks ago, both ACPS and Broward County Public Schools applied for and were awarded a federal Project SAFE grant to make up for that loss. This afternoon the U.S. Education Department (USED) informed Commissioner Corcoran that his proposal to cut our funding further because of the grant award may not be legal. We’ll certainly be monitoring that situation, and we appreciate the continued support of the USED and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona for our efforts to protect the health and safety of our students and staff.

“We’re pleased to learn that Florida has now applied for the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief (ESSER) funding offered to all states by the federal government. That application was actually posted on the USED’s website this afternoon during the Board of Education meeting. Although the state filed the application four months past the deadline, I’m confident that the USED will provide the funding that Florida’s students and schools so desperately need to address COVID and other challenges.”

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