Broward school district gets federal funds to pay back money withheld by state over masks

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The Biden administration on Tuesday made good on its promise to another Florida school district to compensate it for the funding withheld by the state as a penalty for implementing mask mandates for students and staff.

The U.S. Department of Education awarded Broward County Public Schools $420,957 from the federal government’s Project SAFE Grant, the school district announced in a press release.

The funding is the latest development in the ongoing battle between Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who believes parents should be the ones who decide whether their children wear masks in schools, and about a dozen districts around the state who maintain mandating facial coverings protects students and teachers and helps stop the spread of COVID-19 in the classroom.

“We are grateful for the support of the federal government in helping us continue to protect our students and staff from COVID-19,” interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright said in a statement. “I support our School Board for their focus on doing what is in the best interest of our families to ensure our schools continue to provide safe and healthy learning environments.”

Broward is the second of 11 school districts that have defied DeSantis’ executive order prohibiting mask mandates to receive the federal grant funding. DeSantis said that the state would withhold money from those districts equal to the amount of the annual salaries of the school board members who voted for the mask mandates.

The nine-member Broward County School Board unanimously voted on its mask mandate in late July. School Board members for the district, the nation’s sixth largest, make almost $47,000 a year.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the state’s largest district, also has a mask mandate that its School Board approved over the summer.

According to the Broward Schools press release, the Florida Department of Education began withholding $35,080 a month from its funding allocation to the district in August. In total, the state has withheld $70,160 from Broward schools so far, with the most recent allocation last Friday, the district said.

Alachua County, which is a much smaller district than Broward, received its federal funds last week — $148,000 — to compensate for the salaries of the four school board members who voted for its facial covering requirement for students and staff.

The Florida Department of Education said in an email Tuesday evening that the SAFE grant funding will have no impact on the state’s actions toward school districts that continue with their mask mandates in defiance of the governor’s order.

“The federal government will not be allowed to circumvent our laws and we will never cede the moral high ground of fighting for the rights of parents to make personal and private health care decisions for their families,” said Jared Ochs, Florida education department spokesman. “Therefore, the State Board of Education will continue to consider all available legal options within its purview granted by the Florida Constitution and Florida Statutes to ensure each district fully complies with the law.”

On Tuesday, the state Department of Education announced it will meet via conference call with the 11 districts at 1 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 7. The 11 districts are: Alachua, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Miami-Dade, Orange, Palm Beach and Sarasota.

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