School superintendent who criticized DeSantis could lose job
Florida officials are threatening to revoke the teaching license of a school superintendent who criticized Gov. Ron DeSantis, accusing the educator of violating several statutes and DeSantis directives and allowing his “personal political views” to guide his leadership.
Such a revocation by the state Department of Education could allow DeSantis to remove Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna from his elected office. The Republican governor did that last year to an elected Democratic prosecutor in the Tampa Bay area who disagreed with his positions limiting abortion and medical care for transgender teens and indicated he might not enforce new laws in those areas.
Disney also sued DeSantis this week, saying he targeted its Orlando theme parks for retribution after it criticized the governor's so-called “Don't Say Gay” law that then banned the discussion of sexuality and gender in early grades, but has since been expanded.
Hanna has publicly opposed that law, once defied the governor's order that barred any mandate that students wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, and criticized a DeSantis-backed bill that recently passed that will pay for students to attend private school. The Leon County district, with about 30,000 students, covers Tallahassee, the state capital, and its suburbs.
“It’s a sad day for democracy in Florida, and the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, when a state agency with unlimited power and resources, can target a local elected official in such a biased fashion,” Hanna said in a statement sent to The Associated Press and other media Thursday. A Democrat then running as an independent, Hanna was elected to a second four-year term in 2020 with 60% of the vote. He plans to run for re-election next year and does not need a teacher's license to hold the job.
“This investigation has nothing to do with these spurious allegations, but rather everything to do with attempting to silence myself and anyone else who speaks up for teachers and our public schools in a way that does not fit the political narrative of those in power," Hanna said.
He said the investigation was spurred by a single complaint from a leader of the local chapter of Moms for Liberty, a conservative education group, requesting his removal.
“We are fighting tirelessly with our local school board to no avail,” Brandi Andrews wrote DeSantis, citing Hanna's mask mandate, his opposition to the state's new education laws and directives and his public criticism of the governor. She noted that she had appeared in a DeSantis re-election TV commercial.
Her letter was stamped “Let's Go Brandon,” a code by used by some conservatives to replace a vulgar chant made against President Joe Biden. DeSantis is expected to soon announce that he will seek the Republican nomination to challenge Biden in next year's election. Andrews issued a statement saying her complaint against Hanna was one of many.
Education department spokesman Alex Lanfranconi said in a statement that while officials would not discuss the Hanna investigation in detail, “nothing about this case is special.”
“Any teacher with an extensive history of repeated violations of Florida law would be subject to consequences up to and including losing their educator certificate,” he said. The threatened revocation was first reported by the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper.
Before any punishment is meted out, Hanna can have a hearing before an administrative judge, attempt to negotiate a settlement or surrender his license. He said in his statement he has not decided what he will do.
Hanna received a letter from Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. earlier this month saying an investigation found probable cause that he violated a 2021 DeSantis directive barring districts from mandating that students wear COVID-19 masks. Hanna required students to wear masks after a Leon third grader died of the disease early that school year. The fight went on for several months until Leon and several other districts had their legal challenge rejected by the courts.
Diaz also cited a memo Hanna issued before this school year telling teachers, “You do You!” and to teach the way they always had, allegedly giving instructors approval to ignore new laws enacted by DeSantis and the Legislature. That includes the so-called “Don't say Gay” law, which supporters call the “Parental Rights in Education Act.”
His letter also cites the district's failure for one month in 2020 to have an armed guard or police officer at every school as required after the 2018 Parkland high school massacre. Hanna said then that there weren't enough available officers to meet that requirement and the education department cleared him of wrongdoing.
Diaz also complains that parents were told that their children could get an excused absence if they chose to attend a February student protest at the state capitol opposing DeSantis' education policies.
Offering students a “free day off of school” to attend the rally “is another example of (Hanna) failing to distinguish his political views from the standards taught in Florida schools,” Diaz wrote.
Terry Spencer, The Associated Press