WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Florida education leaders have sent an urgent warning letter to the School District of Palm Beach County, threatening to withhold the salaries of school board members if the district doesn't comply with state rules regarding face masks for students.
WPTV confirmed the letter from Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and the State Board of Education was sent to Palm Beach County Superintendent Michael Burke and Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri on Friday.
That's the same day Judge John Cooper of the 2nd Judicial Circuit Court of Florida ruled the Florida Department of Education cannot ban public school districts -- like Palm Beach County -- from enacting universal mask mandates.
"The order from Judge Cooper indicated that we were acting within our rights in mandating the masks for the students," Barbieri told WPTV Monday night. "If the state board tries to sanction the school district, I believe that, at this point, the state board is in violation of the law."
In issuing his ruling Friday, Cooper said state education officials cannot punish school districts for imposing those sweeping mask requirements.
Barbieri said the warning letter was sent to him and Burke just before Cooper announced his decision around 12:30 p.m. Friday, so it's possible the wheels were already in motion from the Florida Department of Education.
"Perhaps the state board had it in progress at that point and there was no way to stop it because it was on its way," Barbieri said. "I'm not sure otherwise why they would send it if they knew that the order was already out there."
In the letter, Corcoron expressed "grave concern" with Palm Beach County's decision to violate an emergency rule issued on Aug. 6 by Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees.
The directive "explicitly requires that any mandated mask policy imposed by a district or school 'must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student from wearing a face covering or mask.'"
Corcoran demanded the School District of Palm Beach County provide a written response by 5 p.m. Wednesday, showing how it's complying with the emergency order.
According to the letter, if the school district fails to fully comply, Corcoran said he'll recommend that the Florida Department of Education "withhold funds in an amount equal to the salaries for all the members of the School Board, as well as other sanctions authorized by law, until the district comes into compliance."
Warning letter from @EducationFL to @pbcsd regarding face mask mandate. Received Friday just as a judge ruled that school districts CAN impose face mask mandates. @WPTV @FOX29WFLX pic.twitter.com/lCsICtOs3x— Stephanie Susskind (@StephanieWPTV) August 31, 2021
SPECIAL COVERAGE: State Of Education
Cooper's critical ruling does not seem to be deterring Corcoran and top education officials from sending a powerful message to local school leaders.
Late Monday, the Florida Department of Education announced it has started withholding the salaries of school board members in Broward and Alachua counties on a monthly basis for violating that state law regarding facial coverings for students.
Corcoran released the following statement, promising "additional sanctions" and "additional enforcement action" to bring the school districts into compliance:
"We’re going to fight to protect parent’s rights to make health care decisions for their children. They know what is best for their children. What’s unacceptable is the politicians who have raised their right hands and pledged, under oath, to uphold the Constitution but are not doing so. Simply said, elected officials cannot pick and choose what laws they want to follow."
Barbieri said he was surprised to see enforcement against Broward and Alachua counties.
"Judge Cooper's order indicated that basically school boards had the authority to mandate masks," Barbieri said. "And the state did not have the authority to sanction school districts, including, I believe, withholding salaries of board members."
While Cooper verbally announced his decision during a virtual court hearing on Friday, he has yet to sign the order to officially make it law. He's said his goal is to do so on Tuesday.
Speaking in Jacksonville on Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis vowed to appeal Cooper's ruling, arguing that parents should have the final say over whether their children are masked in school.
"It'll be appealed. We'll end up getting it back," DeSantis said. "I think we're gonna have really good grounds to appeal."
WATCH GOVERNOR'S COMMENTS:
Barbieri said Burke and the School District of Palm Beach County's general counsel are preparing the district's official response to the letter. He added that, despite the threat to withhold school board member salaries, he doesn't think the board will concede and backtrack on its mask mandate.
"I would be surprised if any of my colleagues on the board change their mind at this point," Barbieri said. "We have a very difficult situation here with the number of infections."
Just three weeks into the 2021/22 academic year, there have already been 3,219 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the School District of Palm Beach County, including 2,750 students and 469 employees.
The school district had roughly 3,800 cases all of last school year.
"The school board is navigating through a difficult situation fighting an invisible enemy, the COVID-19 virus, while at the same time trying to keep our children in their classrooms, which is the way we can best educate them," Barbieri said. "We don't have any choice but to take every measure possible to protect the children and staff in our schools."
Palm Beach County School Board Member Erica Whitfield said she had expected to hear from the state.
"Not a big surprise," Whitfield said. "It is disappointing. I was hopeful the governor would hopefully understand where we were coming from as a school board and not choose to post sanctions on us."
Whitfield added she feels the mask mandate needs to remain in place.
"Everything we can do can help. So I think the mask mandate is just a piece of a larger picture," Whitfield said. "We don't want to see anybody end up in a hospital or, even worse, to lose their life over this."
Standing firm in the face of threats from the state, Barbieri said the Palm Beach County School Board has the Constitutional authority to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of students, even if it means putting part of his salary on the line.
"I didn't take a position on the school board because I wanted to get a paycheck," Barbieri said. "I got on the school board because I wanted to do what I thought was in the best interest of children."
The Palm Beach County School Board is scheduled to discuss the school district's COVID-19 protocols for students and employees during a workshop on Wednesday.
"I believe our school board is acting in the best interest of the children," Barbieri said. "We're trying to make sure that we take all measures that we possibly can to keep them in their classrooms and keep them safe."