Nate Monroe: Facing off against local school leaders, DeSantis' attack dogs bark but don't bite

Nate Monroe
Florida Times-Union
Richard Corcoran, commissioner of the Florida Department of Education.

COMMENTARY | Tom Grady is the sort of run-of-the-mill political backbencher the average Floridian wouldn't ordinarily need to know much about: A reedy securities lawyer from Naples and former elected official with an intense thirst for travel on the taxpayers' dime.

In less than two months leading the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. in 2012, Grady managed to accumulate more than $10,000 in travel costs, including a limo ride and a three-night trip to Bermuda; during his time leading the state Office of Financial Regulation, he spent $6,000 on travel and another $10,000 on office furniture; as a member of the state House, he routinely charged taxpayers for rides on private planes. Summing up his legacy at Citizens, Grady quipped, "I think we were very frugal at expenditures actually."

In a lot of places, this rather remarkable legacy of "frugality" would earn a glad-hander like Grady a one-way ticket to Timbuktu. But in Florida, the land of reinvention and vice, shadiness is practically a prerequisite for future public office.

And so in 2015, former Gov. Rick Scott appointed his personal friend and spiritual doppelgänger to the state Board of Education. That Grady possessed no discernible interest or expertise in education was, again, and like his petty spending, more likely a notch in his favor than a disqualifier.

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Fast forward to today: If Florida education commissioner Richard Corcoran has been quarterbacking the Gov. Ron DeSantis administration's losing war against local school boards, Grady is its water boy, snapping into action to clean up the mess his two superiors have left behind.

An incensed Grady led the charge during an awkward emergency board of education meeting on Tuesday that was intended to punish local school officials for the sin of requiring students to wear masks as the COVID-19 Delta variant lays waste to Florida, in defiance of the wishes of DeSantis.

Grady needled the renegade Alachua and Broward superintendents over an array of grievances that often had little to do with the stated purpose of the meeting. Envious or perplexed, Grady struggled mightily to understand how it was these two superintendents — who have been widely hailed for their courage in standing by health recommendations in the face of threats from the governor — came to be interviewed by out-of-state newspapers and, in the case of Broward, received support directly from President Joe Biden. Grady, perhaps projecting, repeatedly implied those accolades were a credit to some sort of inappropriate public spending on PR.

Despite Grady's endless, ponderous questioning, the two education leaders calmly informed the board their mask mandates do in fact comply with the state rule: Parents are permitted to opt-out as long as they have a doctor's note — the state rule was silent on how such an opt-out should be crafted — and the board itself had already created a blanket opt-out for parents across the state: A special scholarship program available for parents who want to send their kids to no-mask private schools. So there are, in fact, two ways to opt-out of these mask mandates.

That the state rule was rushed and shoddily crafted — allowing for such loopholes — is not the fault of these local school officials, though for students and parents who are concerned for their lives it was a rather fortunate turn of fate.

DeSantis' administration had already backtracked significantly from his initial threats of defunding entire districts if they implemented mask mandates. In doing so he turned local schools officials into martyrs and angered parents across the state. The worst his brain trust could come up with — without inciting a political nuclear war the governor would not win — was docking an amount of state funding equal to the salaries of local school board members and superintendents if they defied him, a comically weak punishment.

Other local schools officials, who have yet to make decisions on mask mandates but appear inclined to follow the lead of Alachua and Broward, took note. Without mentioning masks, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told the board of education Wednesday morning he was prepared to do the "right thing."

"If the reward is a threat, I will wear it as a badge of honor," Carvalho told the board.

And in the end, facing down two defiant superintendents, Grady couldn't even muster the courage to carry out that one meager threat: The board merely asked Corcoran to continue investigating the districts for non-compliance, raising the specter of not just of financial penalties but removing officials from office down the road as well — a power vested only in the governor, not the education commissioner.

They were empty words constituting an empty threat, emanating from a room full of empty suits.

*I'm grateful to reporting from the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald for much of the background material in this column.

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