Gov. Doug Ducey

Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday defended his plan to withhold grant money from districts with mask mandates.

All three major school districts in Gilbert are staying on the sidelines of the emerging showdown between Gov. Doug Ducey and the Biden Administration over mandatory mask policies for students and staff.

In a roller-coaster week triggered by a Maricopa County judge’s ruling Aug. 16 that the state mask mandate ban does not take effect until Sept. 29, Gilbert Public Schools took no action. Last Thursday, Higley Unified Governing Board declined to advance a proposed mandate to a vote while and Chandler Unified’s board voted to keep masks optional.

The districts’ decisions spared them the risk of losing millions of additional dollars in pandemic relief funds that Ducey is vowing to withhold from districts with mandatory mask policies.

Chandler Unified Chief Financial Officer Lana Berry said her district faced an immediate loss of about $11 million and ultimately another $40 million in the dispute. After a lengthy debate, the Chandler board voted 3-2 – with Lara Bruner and Lindsay Love opposed – to keep masks optional.

Higley Governing Board President Kristina Reese’s motion to reinstate mandatory masks on campuses died after it was met with silence from her colleagues. 

Higley risked losing $8.4 million, according to Finance Director Tyler Moore.

In both Higley and Chandler, the alternative was to make masks mandatory until Sept. 29, the date that Judge Randall Warner determined as the effective date of the ban in a ruling on a lawsuit brought against Phoenix Union’s mandatory mask policy by a teacher there.

While Chandler Unified’s meeting was virtual and observed by more than 1,200 viewers online, Higley’s board room was packed with parents while more waited in the lobby to speak on the issue.

The board allowed for 31 speakers, a majority of whom passionately spoke out against a mask mandate.

“I used my eyes and I saw what the community wanted,” said Higley board member Tiffany Shultz, who was elected last fall. “That’s why I voted tonight on what I thought the constituents, the people who voted me into office, wanted me to do.”

Her comment elicited applause from the audience. The board also received and read over 200 emails from the public.

Both Chandler and Higley board presidents after the votes urged parents to think of the safety of their children and the kids around them in classes.

 “I don’t want this to fall on deaf ears,” Reese said. “We continue to receive emails from teachers who have children in their classrooms, in the morning that they get a notification from their parents that they had to come pick them up because while they were in school, they got the results of their COVID test and it is positive…I get it’s optional but they sat in class while they were waiting for the results of their test. That’s irresponsible. Please be responsible and considerate of others.”

The debate about mandatory masks comes amid rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in both districts.

Data released by the county health department the same day Higley and Chandler boards met show that cases per 100,000 in Higley Unified have soared to 406 and positive new test results climbed to 12 percent – levels of “high” virus transmission not seen in months.

Chandler Unified’s cases per 100,000 are at 328 and positivity is 10 percent, the county data showed.

Higley opponents of mandatory masks argued that face coverings don’t work and do more harm to children.

Some, like Travis St. Denis, maintained that a mandate would be taking away people’s rights.

“The enforcement of masks is a violation of the current laws on the books such as the parental bill of rights,” he said. “The arrogance of this district to think they can dictate our lives. The majority of teachers in the two schools my children attend do not wear masks. They just want to teach and genuinely engage with children.”

During the Chandler meeting, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Wendy Nance said the district is surveying staff on a variety of COVID-related matters and that even though the deadline for responses is Wednesday, Aug. 25, 3709 or the district’s 5,201 employees already responded.

Their responses to questions about mandatory masks reflected the division within the community, she pointed out, stating that 58 percent of the respondents favored a mandate while 42 percent opposed.

Higley Superintendent Dawn Foley said her district recorded 258 resolved and current COVID cases for the first four weeks of school, compared with 567 cases for all of last school year. She said the board at its meeting this week will discuss further COVID mitigations to put in place in the event of rising numbers.

Chandler Unified already has implemented a layered mitigation approach with increasingly more measures put in place on a school by school basis depending on the number of active COVID cases.

In most Chandler schools, the number of infected students was less than 1 percent of their school’s total enrollment.

Higley and Chandler met in a week that began with Warner’s ruling, then snowballed into a series of exchanges through the media between Ducey and the Biden administration.

Ducey on Aug. 17 said he will offer private school vouchers to students in any district violating the ban and will prevent them from sharing $163 million that the state got through the American Rescue Plan to boost per-pupil funding. 

Those dollars will be available to district and charter schools “following all state laws’’ as of Aug. 27, he said.

But the next day, the nation’s top education official told Ducey his threaten actions may violate federal law.

In a letter to the governor, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona wrote, ``Arizona’s actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 that are aligned with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts these goals at risk. 

What makes that important is that Cardona is expanding the scope of what fits under those rules.

We’re expanding that to violations of safety,’’ said Vanessa Harmoush a spokeswoman for the agency. 

``So if a parent or teacher or student feels like they aren’t able to be safe in schools because of certain laws put in place, they can file a complaint,’’ she said. ``We can pursue the investigation and kind of go from there.’’

Ducey and press aide C.J. Karamargin brushed aside the administration’s remarks.

“What is it about families they don’t trust?” Karamargin said, adding “The last thing we need is some bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., telling Arizona parents what’s best for them.”

He also said, “We are confident” that Ducey’s plan to distribute the COVID relief program funds “aligns with federal guidance.” 

Ducey on Thursday told reporters he considered the Biden Administration’s remarks “weak and pathetic.”

He also slammed the three state universities for implanting mask mandates and suggested he may take them to court.

Ducey promised to provide up to $7,000 to parents for vouchers to send their children to private or parochial schools. Karamargin rejected the idea that the governor has no authority to expand who is eligible for what are formally known as “empowerment scholarship accounts.’’ 

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, called Ducey’s moves “surprising and disappointing.’’

“The governor never wastes an opportunity to spend more money on private school vouchers and seemingly take it away from public schools,’’ he said. And Thomas said the moves “incentivize putting students in danger.’’

And House Democratic Leader Reginald Bolding slammed what he called “Ducey’s announcements today to essentially bribe school districts with additional funding if they don’t join the growing list of districts opting to protect students and staff by requiring masks on campus, and unilaterally expanding private school vouchers – an idea that has failed at the ballot box and at the Legislature this past session.” 

GSN Executive Editor Paul Maryniak and Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.