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Florida's fight over money and masks, and the coming friction over redrawing political districts

Students wearing masks outside a school building
Chris O'Meara/AP
FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, file photo, students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla. The on-again, off-again ban imposed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to prevent mandating masks for Florida school students is back in force. The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Friday, Sept. 10, that a Tallahassee judge should not have lifted an automatic stay two days ago that halted enforcement of the mask mandate ban. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)

The state keeps coming after school districts over mask mandates. School districts are going after the state in court. Plus, redrawing political districts across the state.

Six school districts around Florida filed suit against the Florida Department of Health this week. They argue school boards, not the state health agency, have the power to decide how to stop the spread of COVID-19 in class.

It’s the latest on the ongoing war over mask mandates in Florida schools.

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Also this week, the state Board of Education gave more than a half dozen districts two days to repeal their student mask requirements or risk being fined. Eight times during Thursday’s meeting, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said the districts, which include some of the largest in the state, were not following the law.

"I wanted to report a determination of probable cause to this point, this district does not come forward with documentation to establish compliance with the law, which requires an opt out of the district's mask mandate at the sole discretion of a parent or legal guardian," he told the board.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho asked the state board to delay taking action against the district until the end of the month.

“Tragically, since August, we lost 14 staff members and one student, and many more have been hospitalized. We know masks reduce viral spread. Those who say otherwise are misinformed or misguided," he said.

The U.S. Department of Education has offered grant money to reimburse both the Broward and Alachua county school districts for state funding that’s already been withheld because of the fight over masks. However, the state wants to hold back any amount of money a district receives in those federal grants.

"We haven't taken anything at this point," said Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon. "We want results and not retribution."

The Alachua County school board extended its mask requirement Tuesday, with some changes, including allowing parents to exempt high school students after Oct. 18. Even with that chance, Simon does not think the state will consider Alachua schools in compliance with the Department of Health rule.

"They were really not interested in listening to any of our superintendents and our discussions and rationale for why we think the law is problematic and not safe for our students and our staff," Simon said.

Alachua was one of the first Florida school districts to be fined by the state for its rule requiring students to wear masks in school. Simon said so far less than $30,000 has been withheld.

New Political Boundaries

Florida will be getting one more seat in the U.S. House of Representatives thanks to the growing population. The looming questions include: Where will that new Congressional district be? What could the new political boundaries mean for control in Tallahassee, Capitol Hill, and the outcome of the Electoral College vote for president in years to come?

The process to redraw political districts is underway. Fort Myers Republican state Sen, Ray Rodrigues is in charge of the Senate Reapportionment Committee. He made three pledges in July about the process.

"We’re going to pass a map that’s going to be fair. We’re going to pass a map that is compliant with our statutory requirements that exist in the Florida state statutes. And we’re going to pass a map that’s completely constitutional. If we do those three things — which we will — then we will have successfully completed our task," he said.

"There's so much at stake," said State Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville). "There's certainly some different interpretations about how we proceed."

In 2010, Florida voters approved the Fair Districts Amendment to the state constitution. It prohibits lawmakers from drawing maps favoring political incumbents. The redrawn maps from the Legislature 10 years ago were the subject of lawsuits that ended in 2015 when the state Supreme Court adopted maps okayed by the House and Senate, that were drawn by the League of Women Voters.

"There's a lot in play in a state that's considered the swing state in America," said GOP strategist Adam Goodman, with lobbying firm Ballard Partners. "With a state in a country that is more divisive and more intolerant and distrusting of each other politically than ever before, whatever happens or doesn't happen will be critiqued, criticized and probably filleted."

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Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.