Flouting White House, Florida Penalizes School Districts

FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Pembroke Pines, Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021 said he will call state lawmakers back to work early to pass legislation to combat coronavirus vaccine mandates enacted by businesses. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of a monoclonal antibody site Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in Pembroke Pines, Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021 said he will call state lawmakers back to work early to pass legislation to combat coronavirus vaccine mandates enacted by businesses. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The state of Florida has withheld funding from two school districts over their coronavirus mask mandates, flouting threats from White House officials who warned that such penalties would violate federal law.

School officials in Alachua and Broward counties on Wednesday said the state docked school board salaries and overall funding in amounts equal to federal aid packages meant to blunt the state's sanctions on mask requirements. This month, more than $164,000 was withheld from the Alachua school district and more than $455,000 was withheld from Broward.

The penalties are the latest development in an ongoing feud between the White House and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration over coronavirus regulations. DeSantis is eyeing a possible 2024 presidential run and is one of several GOP governors who have moved to ban mask mandates.

The Florida State Board of Education earlier this month approved plans to withhold a month’s salary from school board members in districts with classroom mask requirements and reduce overall funding if those counties receive a federal grant intended to offset the state’s fines.

The announcements come days after the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to Florida warning that deducting money from districts that received the grant would violate federal law. The letter added that the federal government “is prepared to initiate enforcement action to stop these impermissible state actions.”

Florida's ban on classroom mask mandates quickly sparked legal challenges. A Leon County judge ruled over the summer that DeSantis did not have authority to ban local school mask mandates under Florida’s Parents Bill of Rights law. The governor appealed, and the 1st District Court of Appeal issued a stay allowing the ban on mandates to remain while the merits of the case are considered.

The state education department didn't immediately comment. The federal education department didn't immediately return an email seeking comment.