A dozen Florida school districts — including those in Palm Beach and Indian River counties — could miss out on hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding after imposing sweeping mask mandates on students last year.
State. Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, recently unveiled the "Putting Parents First Adjustment" in the Florida House of Representatives' proposed budget.
The adjustment would slash $200 million in funding from 12 Florida school districts that mandated facial coverings for students last year without the ability for them to opt-out.
Under the proposal, the School District of Palm Beach County would receive a $28 million deduction in state funding for the 2022/23 academic year, and the School District of Indian River County would receive a $1.3 million deduction.
Fine said the $200 million would be given to 55 other Florida school districts that made masks optional for children.
"We're talking about $200 million to reward 55 school districts that did the right thing and send a message to 12 that you hurt your children, don't do it again," Fine said during a House Appropriations Committee meeting on Feb. 9.
WATCH FINE'S COMMENTS:
Fine stressed that the deductions would not be taken from teacher salaries or programs that affect students, but could instead impact the pay of high-ranking school district administrators.
"These are bureaucrats. Not people in the classroom. Not people teaching students. These are administrative overhead expenses that are making $100,000 or more," Fine said.
SPECIAL COVERAGE: Education
In a written statement to WPTV, Superintendent Mike Burke of the School District of Palm Beach County said he sees "no justification" for the Florida Legislature to withhold funding, calling Fine's proposal "unfounded, unprecedented, and unjust."
Burke argued the school district made facial coverings optional for students on Nov. 19, 2021 to comply with state law.
"Once the Florida legislature removed any ability for School District's to mandate masks, the District immediately lifted its requirement and shared that information with parents," Burke said. "With Florida perennially ranked in the bottom decile of education funding per student across the United States, any dollars lost to such a punitive proposal would negatively impact the ability of our schools to meet the needs of our students."
Fine emphasized that, despite the deduction, the School District of Palm Beach County would receive a $64 million increase in overall K-12 funding for the 2022/23 academic year under the House's proposed budget.
"Sorry for them, the money doesn't go up as much, but it still does go up," Fine said.
The School District of Indian River County had, at one point last school year, mandated facial coverings for all K-8 students without the ability for them to opt-out.
Cristen Maddux, the school district's public information officer, released this statement to WPTV regarding the proposed budget deductions:
"Our District always acted within the confines of the law and when the requirements were shifted and modified, we shifted and modified. We were the one district that acted upon the COVID-19 data, adjusting our mitigation strategies as the state of our community fluctuated."
Fine argued that all school districts in Florida would receive a combined funding increase of $105 billion under the House's budget, making the "Putting Parents First Adjustment" more of a "reward" for districts that were in compliance with state law.
"I would note that in this budget, no school district will receive less money in the future year than they get right now. So the 'Putting Parents First Adjustment' is, in the grand scheme of things compared to the aggregate of the money, a relatively small part," Fine said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, however, did not appear to initially support Fine's proposal.
Speaking at a news conference in Marianna on Feb. 11, DeSantis said the Florida Legislature should not financially penalize school districts, but should instead give parents and guardians the power to sue.
"Rather than take money that may penalize a teacher or student because of the actions of some union-controlled school board member, my view would be, let's not do that," DeSantis said. "But what you could do is say, any parent whose kid was illegally forced masked this year in Florida in any of those districts, they should have the right to sue if their kids have any negative effects of it."
WATCH GOVERNOR'S COMMENTS:
However, the governor appeared to change his stance on Monday, tweeting his thanks to Fine, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, and the Florida House "for heeding my call to protect students and teachers from accountability measures affecting union-controlled politicians and bureaucrats who defied Florida law by force masking kids."
In his tweet, DeSantis said parents should have "recourse for harms imposed on their kids due to this defiance."
"They should get compensated for academic, social, and emotional problems caused by these policies," DeSantis wrote.
Under Fine's proposal, school districts in Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Miami-Dade, Duval, Hillsborough, Leon, Orange, Sarasota, and Volusia counties would also receive cuts in state funding.
The Florida Senate's proposed $108 billion budget, meanwhile, does not include any deductions for local school districts over their mask policies.
The state House of Representatives still needs to vote on its budget proposal. After that, the House will negotiate with the Senate over a final budget before presenting it to DeSantis.