When Alachua County Public Schools was slapped with salary cuts due to masking politics, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona gave the superintendent a call.
“The president said it and I said it before: We’ve got your back and we wanted to deliver on that,” Cardona told ACPS superintendent Carlee Simon on a Sept. 23 video call. “You’re doing the right thing … I’m proud of your leadership and your students are fortunate to have you as their leader.”
The district announced Sept. 23 it will receive a $148,000 federal reimbursement to account for school board member salaries withheld by the Florida Department of Education. The state withheld the salaries due to the district’s mask requirement, which it claims violated Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order 21-175.
ACPS is the first school district in the U.S. to receive a grant from the federal government as a part of Project SAFE, a grant program that reimburses school districts for funding withheld by a state government because of mask requirements and other COVID-related protocols.
ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson said the federal grant will directly pay for the board members’ salaries for a year. So far, the FDOE has withheld two months-worth of salaries about $27,000 per each of the four School Board members who voted for the mask mandates: Leanetta McNealy, Tina Certain, Rob Hyatt and Gunnar Paulson.
“Frankly, we were not planning on cutting the board members salaries anyway,” Johnson said. “We had some other options.”
Johnson said the Alachua County Commission was more than willing to provide money out of the county’s COVID-19 budget to make up for the withheld salaries.
However, with the federal government’s help, the board never needed to follow up on the County Commission’s offer.
“Now we don't have to use any of those other options,” Johnson said. “We can now just go ahead and do what we normally do.
Secretary Cardona wrote in a release this is an initial step to show school districts the federal government supports those that have imposed mask mandates to the dismay of their state governments.
“I commend Alachua for protecting its students and educators, and I look forward to working with them to provide students their best year yet,” Cardona wrote. “Every student across the country deserves the opportunity to return to school in-person safely this fall, and every family should be confident that their school is implementing policies that keep their children safe.”
Simon wrote in a statement she is grateful the president is siding with school districts like Alachua County.
“I’m very grateful to Mr. Cardona, President Biden and the federal government for the funding,” Simon said. “But I’m even more grateful for their continued support and encouragement of our efforts to protect students and staff and to keep our schools open for in-person learning.”
Contact Jiselle Lee at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jiselle_lee.
Jiselle Lee is a journalism junior and The Alligator’s features and investigations editor. Previously, she was a reporter for NextShark and a news intern at The Bradenton Herald. In her free time, she enjoys thrifting and going to the beach.