Nate Monroe: Duval School Board snubs DeSantis on masks, another setback for Florida governor

Nate Monroe
Florida Times-Union

COMMENTARY | The Duval County School Board on Tuesday night abruptly changed course and adopted a mask requirement for students with the caveat that parents will be allowed to fill out paperwork to exempt their kids, dealing a rebuke to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and crafting a workaround to his admonishment that local governments should not impose mandates to combat the spread of COVID-19.

DeSantis has threatened to withhold state money from school districts that defy his wishes. A Duval schools official estimated Tuesday the total amount of money the state could conceivably withhold could top $640 million of the district's $2 billion budget.

The School Board's action didn't go as far as many parents and doctors had hoped and pressed the district Tuesday night to adopt during public comment. But the middle path it took instead — at the suggestion of board member Darryl Willie — indicated clear discomfort with the limitations DeSantis hopes to impose on local officials who are trying to slow an explosion of COVID-19 cases in Jacksonville and across the state, while adding an opt-out clause that might help the mask requirement survive legal scrutiny in Florida's largely conservative courts.

Mask mandate — with a catch: Duval School Board approves mask requirement with opt-out clause

Nate Monroe:Welcome to Florida, where there is definitely no public health emergency

Two storylines about the School Board's actions Tuesday are remarkable.

The first is about the board itself and Superintendent Diana Greene: Over the past two years they have successfully championed a new half-cent sales tax to renovate the district's aging buildings, going as far as suing City Hall to make it happen; wiped the names of Confederate generals off city schools; and now been among the first districts to call DeSantis' bluff on COVID-19.

On that last point, there's evidence Duval may have helped pave the way for other districts to follow suit. Broward had implemented a mask mandate for its schools, pulled it back after DeSantis issued his executive order this past Friday, but by Wednesday — the day after Duval's vote — decided it would re-implement the mandate anyway, rejecting DeSantis' edict.

Greene does not lead a perfect school system, but she and the board have withstood opposition from powerful special interests  — like charter-school advocates, whose biggest supporters are some of Jacksonville's most prolific political donors — and the increasingly autocratic Florida Department of Education, led by an unqualified DeSantis acolyte, to better the lives of students, faculty and staff. 

DeSantis has already indicated he plans to use his political machine to meddle in local school board races across Florida. Duval's elected board members took action Tuesday at risk to their own political careers. Yet the school board has survived attempted coups by Jacksonville's well-monied, charter-friendly business class for years, and it has become one of the most proactive, progressive group of elected leaders in the city. 

The second compelling narrative is just how often Jacksonville — DeSantis' old stomping grounds — has stomped him. It was here, after all, where he was publicly shamed into having his Department of Transportation reverse course and allow the Jacksonville Transportation Authority to turn Pride lights back on the Acosta Bridge it had previously shut down, the kind of about-face humiliation Florida's stubborn governor has rarely faced.

When he plans news conferences here, he has to squirrel away to friendly private religious schools to host him.

That must be quite embarrassing for the former Northeast Florida congressman.

DeSantis is known to have few close relationships with staffers and other elected officials, and that is particularly true in Jacksonville, which was once a source of Republican power in Florida. He did remarkably little during his time in Congress to build goodwill among Jacksonville's elected leaders and constituents.

Even Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, who often gets dragged into press events with DeSantis, has to walk a careful line on some of the governor's most divisive stances.

Curry, for example, wisely implemented a months-long mask mandate before letting it expire in March, one of many steps taken by local leaders that kept Florida's initial COVID-19 experience from overwhelming hospitals. It also happens to be one of the pandemic policies that rankles the ever-vexed DeSantis the most.

It's the sort of strained love-hate relationship that would be comical were life and death not at stake.

Nate Monroe's City column appears every Thursday and Sunday.

nmonroe@jacksonville.com