School Board demands answers from county, state

Will vote on mask mandate if no response

By James Hanlon
Leader Staff Writer
The Oxford School Board wants to resolve the conflict between the Oakland County Health Division’s school mask mandate and Public Act 87, which prohibits local health departments from requiring anyone under the age of 18 to wear a mask or they will lose funding. The board passed a resolution at Oxford Middle School Oct. 19, officially requesting a reconciliation from the governor’s office and the county by Oct. 29.
If there is no answer by then, “our board will put forth a motion and allow Oxford Community Schools to transition back to the planned process procedures that were developed prior to the mask mandate being implemented,” the resolution states. “The Oxford Community Schools district will strongly recommend the wearing of masks, but will allow each family to determine what is right for them. If the motion is passed, this change will be effective the day after the board’s affirmative vote.”
The resolution passed 5-1. Trustee Mary Hanser cast the dissenting vote. Trustee Dan D’Alessandro was absent.
This follows a resolution from a week earlier, requesting Oxford’s state representatives ask Attorney General Dana Nessel for a legal opinion on the matter. The school board has not heard back from the AG’s office.
When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the budget bill into law Sept. 29, she stated that the provisions prohibiting mask mandates are unconstitutional and unenforceable. Nevertheless, the health departments of Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Dickinson, Eaton and Iron counties all got rid of their mask requirements shortly after the bill was signed.
However, health departments representing 14 counties and a majority of the state’s population have kept their mandates. Those departments, including Oakland’s, are continuing to receive state funds for fiscal year 2022 despite the budget language, according to an Oct. 22 MLive report.
Members of the Oxford School Board called the situation “a constitutional crisis” forcing them to violate their oaths of office to uphold the Michigan Constitution. “It has been impossible for Oxford Community Schools Board of Education members to live up to their oath to uphold the Constitution of the State of Michigan while complying with the Oakland County Health Division mandate,” the resolution states. “To obey one means disobeying the other.”
The board has sought many clarifications to the mask mandate and has not received the necessary responses, according to the resolution.
The board is responding to calls from dozens of parents and community members to disregard the mandate, and a letter of intent to sue the district. Board President Tom Donnelly said no lawsuit has been filed yet.
During board discussion before voting on the resolution, Trustee Mary Hanser said she is not comfortable with the resolution based on information she received from the Michigan Association of School Boards’ legal counsel, from the district’s attorneys and her own research indicating a budget bill cannot change the authority of the health department
. “I’m not comfortable with saying ‘either answer us or else we’re just going to do what we want to do’ . . . It doesn’t matter if I want to wear masks or not, we need to follow the orders of the health department, because those orders can’t just be changed. I’m concerned if we say ‘answer us or else’ and they don’t, then we’re going to have this all coming back on us if something were to happen.”
Trustee Korey Bailey said, “I would agree, but, we’ve asked, we’ve asked, we’ve got no replies. I think it’s time to say, give us an answer or this is the direction we’re taking. Do we follow a law to violate a mandate? Or do we follow a mandate, which we’re back to violating the law? I’m not comfortable violating a law for a mandate.”
Board vice president Chad Griffith said, “It’s pretty clear the way it was worded, this resolution is not saying give me the information or we’re taking our masks off. It’s saying, give us the information, or we are going to get back together as a board and we are going to put a motion out and we are going to vote on it.”
Trustee Erick Foster said they should be prepared to “lawyer up” or to take a step back, if needed.
President Donnelly agreed. “We have been trying to be as honest as we can and transparent as we can with the community, and so we would be letting them know if we needed to step back, move a date or we got some knew information,” he said.
Hanser insisted that one line of legislation cannot simply alter the health code.
“I think we understand what the health code is,” Griffith responded, “that the health division has a certain amount of authority. But this senate bill is putting some contingencies on that. And I think that’s the component that we need clarification on. Is that line in the bill constitutional? Does that in fact remove the health division’s authority to mandate masks? Or supersede it? We need to know if that line is constitutional, because that is going to tell us, are we breaking the law or are we obeying the law?”
The school district’s attorneys have advised the board to follow the mandate, and let the conflict eventually get worked out in court. “But it’s all based around money,” Bailey said. “It’s all based around, you could lose funding, you could be sued. It doesn’t answer the question: am I as a board member standing here violating a law (by) requiring masks? That’s what I want an answer to.”
As of Monday, the school district has not heard back from the county or the governor’s office regarding the resolution. If there is no response, the board will address the issue at the Nov. 9 meeting, scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at OHS, according to Donnelly.

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