TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Don't do it or else. That was the notice Monday from the U.S. Department of Education telling the state not to cut federal grant dollars dedicated to districts violating Florida's mask mandate ban.
Several schools are still not offering required parental opt outs and plan to use the funds from Project SAFE to offset state penalties.
Ian Rosenblum, deputy assistant secretary for Policy and Programs, sent the warning letter to Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.
In it, Rosenblum said cutting SAFE dollars would be a violation of 1965's Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
"A State shall not take into consideration payments under this Act ... in determining ... the amount of State aid, with respect to free public education of children."
From @EducationFL’s Comms Director: “Yes, we received another harassing and legally hollow letter from U.S. DOE, and again we will continue forward, lawfully, as we have this entire time.”— Forrest Saunders (@FBSaunders) October 25, 2021
If the state moves forward, Rosenblum said, federal officials are prepared to "initiate enforcement action to stop these impermissible state actions."
"We hope that you reconsider your threatened actions against these districts in response to the Project SAFE awards, so that they may continue to take steps to help ensure safe and healthy environments for their students, families, and educators," Rosenblum said.
The letter follows a recent decision by the State Board of Education to strip districts receiving the federal backfill. Broward and Alachua counties were the first approved for thousands of dollars each.
In a statement, FLDOE communication director Jared Ochs said the department was in receipt of the letter but would not cease plans to strip dollars away.
"Yes, we received another harassing and legally hollow letter from U.S. DOE," Ochs said. "And again we will continue forward, lawfully, as we have this entire time."
The state's threat has been enough to keep districts like Alachua from actually collecting the funds. Superintendent Dr. Carlee Simon told us recently she would wait to see how things play out before moving forward with the grant.
"We will use it in the event we need it," Simon said. "At this point, we're just going to wait and see. We are watching our dollars and making sure that we are spending them appropriately.”
The U.S. Education Department letter will likely provide some measure of comfort to defiant districts like Alachua as the federal government again shows continued support. But, further complications are in the works.
At the governor's request, lawmakers are set to return in November for a special session to address mask and vaccine requirements.
Specifically, Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he wants "additional protections" to hold defiant school districts accountable and protect individual liberties.
DeSantis' office has said to expect more details on the special session later this week.