DeSantis backs away from threat to withhold salaries of school officials who defied his ban on mask mandates

AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

What happened to “he fights”?

Well, he tried to fight in this case. Then his lawyers had a word with him and told him that the fight is canceled.

What now?

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration backed down from its threat to withhold school officials’ salaries if they resist his anti-mask rule, saying instead that the defiant officials should be responsible for the “consequences of their decisions.”

The move by the governor’s office represents a tacit acknowledgement that it legally can’t take away the salaries of school board members and others despite previously threatening to. DeSantis could levy hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines against school districts for disobeying his mask orders, but it would be up for the board leaders themselves to cut their own pay…

In her statement, [DeSantis spokesman Christina] Pushaw said the education officials in question “are not on the state payroll, so this form of penalty is the most narrowly tailored approach that the state can take.”

He could cut funding to districts that have ordered mask mandates in an amount equal to the salaries of the defiant school officials, forcing those officials to choose between going without pay or paying themselves out of the remaining funds and slashing other needed expenditures to balance the books. But that’s a blunt tool. DeSantis doesn’t want to antagonize parents, who might resent seeing him punish the entire school district for the actions of officials with respect to masks. What he wants to do is target those officials themselves.

There may be a way. According to Politico, “there is one big power the governor still retains — and could theoretically use: the authority to suspend an elected official.” DeSantis can remove a school official who’s broken the law, and has actually done it once before. Florida’s educators have noticed, too. The school superintendent of Leon County recently announced that parents would need to submit a doctor’s note if they wanted to opt their child out of the county’s mask mandate, whereupon DeSantis’s education commissioner warned him that he’d be “investigated” for failing to comply with the governor’s anti-mandate order. Fearing for his job, the superintendent backed down.

The question for the administration is whether going nuclear by attempting to remove defiant officials is a legal and political fight worth having. Is DeSantis’s order banning mandates really “the law” for purposes of removing a lower official? Even if it is, school mask mandates are popular on balance. Would the public side with the removed officials, who’ll plead that they were only trying to protect the district’s students by requiring them to mask up?

This dispute over mask mandates is idiotic in that those mandates are largely beside the point. If local officials want to defy DeSantis’s ban on all mandates, they should start by mandating vaccination for all teachers, not by mandating masks for kids. That would have helped in Broward County, where four teachers have died of COVID within the last 48 hours:

The Broward Teachers Union confirmed Thursday that three teachers and a teacher’s assistant have died from COVID-19 within the last two days.

Union president Anna Fusco said those teachers were on summer break when they got the virus

Fusco said at least three of the four were not vaccinated, but one had been recently cleared by a doctor to get the vaccine.

“It really hits because we’ve been in this conversation about masking up in schools; our own elected governor acting like masks are not necessary,” said Fusco.

That’s awful but DeSantis and his view of masks have nothing to do with it. School wasn’t in session so the teachers obviously didn’t contract the virus from unmasked students. They could have and should have gotten vaccinated on their own initiative, not just to protect themselves but to protect their unvaccinated younger students once classes resumed. The union is obviously scapegoating DeSantis for their deaths in order to deflect attention from the insane reality that teachers aren’t being required to get their shots as a condition of employment.

As I’ve said before, and as Robby Soave says today at Reason, DeSantis does deserve some heat for not letting local school officials mandate vaccinations, a policy even national teachers unions now support. It’d be a fair compromise, and internally coherent, for him to ban mask mandates but allow vaccine mandates for school staff: Both policies are aimed at maximizing kids’ welfare, he could say, freeing them from the restrictions of masking while reducing their risk of being infected by a teacher. Every additional vaccination that happens in Florida will ease the burden on the state’s hospitals going forward. DeSantis should be looking for ways to twist arms in getting people immunized.

But he’s not going to do that because, as Peggy Noonan wrote today, he’s afraid of the GOP base. He knows that a meaningful minority of the party is noisily anti-vax and that they’ll hold it against him if he stands aside while vaccinations are made mandatory for any group, even one as suspect to righties as public-school teachers. Forced to choose between letting unvaccinated teachers expose kids to the virus and blessing local mandates that force them to get jabbed as a condition of employment, he’ll choose door number one because it’s better for his 2024 prospects.

I’ll leave you with this report from Palm Beach County, which just sent 440 students home to quarantine due to an outbreak of COVID on the second day of school. The county has ordered a mask mandate for its 197,000 students but 5,700 have been allowed to opt out in accordance with DeSantis’s ban on mandates. The superintendent is blaming that policy for the outbreak. Is he right? There’s no way to know unless and until we find out whether the share of unmasked kids who got infected is any higher than the share of masked ones who did.