The Palm Beach County School Board held a special meeting Wednesday, Aug. 25 and approved seeking legal assistance against challenges to its decision to make wearing masks in school mandatory to protect against COVID-19.
Last week, the board changed its mask policy to eliminate a parental opt-out, which goes against an executive order from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that aims to ensure that parents have the option to choose whether their children wear masks or not.
As its first order of business, the board heard two hours of live public input and an hour and 15 minutes of recorded messages, the majority of which opposed masking, and many of whom accused the school board of violating the law by defying DeSantis’ executive orders.
But the board stuck to its decision to require masks for students and staff and passed motions to defend its decision legally if necessary.
“I would recommend the board discuss and take legal action, if any, on a challenge to the recent executive order and/or emergency rules of the State Board of Education and/or Department of Health related to COVID-19,” Board Chair Frank Barbieri Jr. said.
School District General Counsel Shawntoyia Bernard said the action taken so far by the board to require masks has been within the authority of the board to ensure the health, safety and welfare of students.
“There are at least at the moment 10 school boards that have exercised this same constitutional authority, and the number of those school boards are climbing,” Bernard said. “Today, I’m asking that the board vote to give me the authority to engage outside counsel to provide the board advice and discuss strategies on all issues, including but not limited to constitutional, statutory and regulatory issues regarding the school board’s mask mandate, and representation of the school board in all pending cases and any future cases that the school board may file, join, collaborate, intervene in or defend in any form.”
Bernard said she intended to keep the board informed before any action is taken.
“I’m asking this so it is without the need to come back to the board before moving forward if it is determined and agreed by the outside counsel and myself at my direction that the action is necessary,” she said. “Over the next week, we may find that time is of the essence, and there may not necessarily be the opportunity to bring it back in time for the board.”
School Board Member Erica Whitfield made a motion to approve getting outside counsel, which carried 7-0.
Superintendent Mike Burke also recommended approval of a proposed revised policy requiring speakers to provide their home address, board meeting decorum and warnings for disruptive conduct.
Board Member Marcia Andrews made a motion to approve the recommendation, which was seconded by Board Member Alexandria Ayala.
Some board members suggested holding workshops to discuss time limits for large numbers of speakers.
Board Vice Chair Karen Brill said she remembered a time before she was on the board and as a speaker addressing the board, she would have three different addresses, a one-minute, two-minute and three-minute version.
“The chair would say, ‘OK, you’re going to have X number of minutes, so I think we need to have a discussion of where is our cutoff in terms of numbers, and how many minutes do we want the speakers to have,” Brill said. “These meetings are for the business of the board. We want to hear from the public, but going until midnight? It’s not just the hours, that’s not the problem, it’s your mental capacity at that point to do the deep dive into the business.”
Andrews said she felt the board has been very generous regarding public comment.
“But we know that we have to get the business done of the school board,” Andrews said. “I do believe in people having a voice and having their say, but we’re going to have to change how we do business. I was listening to the State Board of Education meeting the other day, and they do not play. They cut you off in about a minute.”
She added that the official meeting is the only time that board members get to speak to one another due to the Sunshine Law.
She noted that some school boards have designated an hour prior to the actual meeting that the public can provide input.
“That’s what I’m really concerned about, the conduct in here and the clapping,” Andrews said. “We can’t get to our work. People are listening at home and wondering, ‘What’s going on here with the School District of Palm Beach County?’”