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Education commissioner threatens to withhold salaries of Hillsborough, Sarasota school boards over masks

A judge last week found Gov. Ron DeSantis crossed his constitutional authority by issuing an order that banned districts from enacting mask mandates.

TAMPA, Fla. — Florida's education commissioner is threatening to recommend the state withhold the salaries of school board members at two Tampa Bay-area districts that recently approved face mask policies.

In a letter dated Friday, Aug. 27, to the Hillsborough and Sarasota school districts, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said recent reports show the boards have "taken action inconsistent with the emergency rule by limiting or conditioning the parental ability to opt-out of a face covering or mask mandate."

He started "an investigation of non-compliance" and gave the districts a midweek deadline to respond how they are in compliance or risk the department withholding "funds in an amount equal to all the salaries for all the members of the School Board... ."

Corcoran on Monday announced the department has withheld funds equal to school board members' salaries in Alachua and Broward counties.

"We’re going to fight to protect parent’s rights to make health care decisions for their children," Corcoran wrote in a statement. "They know what is best for their children." 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis earlier this summer signed the "Parents' Bill of Rights," aimed at protecting caretakers' choices over a child's health and upbringing. In July, he signed an executive order that banned districts from enacting mask mandates.

Hillsborough County Schools recently approved a policy requiring students, teachers and staff to mask up, with an opt-out available to students for medical reasons as long as they submit a doctor's note. In Sarasota County, school leaders voted to enforce a mask mandate with the opportunity for medical exemptions.

In response to the letter, Sarasota County School Board Chair Shirley Brown said she believed DeSantis and Corcoran were exceeding their authority. Brown added that the school district's policy was allowed within the state's Parents Bill of Rights.

The letter to the Hillsborough and Sarasota school districts comes as Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper on Friday ruled in favor of several Tampa Bay-area attorneys and parents who filed a lawsuit challenging DeSantis' ban on mask mandates in schools. Cooper contended the governor crossed his constitutional authority by issuing the order.

Cooper explained that while Florida law does give parents the right to oversee health issues for their children, it exempts reasonable actions needed to protect public health. According to the judge, this includes a school district's decision to require students and staff to wear masks.

DeSantis' office said the governor would appeal the ruling.