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Florida official who criticized DeSantis reaches settlement with education department

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A school superintendent who was criticized by Florida Gov.
FILE - Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaks during a campaign event, June 2, 2023, in Lexington, S.C. (AP Photo/Artie Walker Jr., File)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A school superintendent who was criticized by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for infusing “politically charged statements” and “personal views” into his administration has reached an agreement with the state's Department of Education.

Rocky Hanna, superintendent of Leon County Schools, will receive a reprimand as part of the settlement with the education practices commission. The agreement ends an investigation tied to Hanna requiring masks for the district’s 30,000 students and thousands of employees in 2021, after DeSantis banned the mandates.

“I have done nothing wrong. I absolutely have no ‘history of defying the law’ nor have I ever suggested to anyone to violate the law or not teach the Florida Standards as established by the Board of Education,” Hanna said in a statement.

Hanna said he has "chosen to ignore my personal pride and remain focused on the bigger picture — helping every student in our district prepare for their next step in life.”

In April, Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. notified Hanna there was probable cause to justify sanctions, which included the possibility of a reprimand, suspension or permanent revocation of his teaching license.

Diaz noted that Hanna 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.

Hanna is not required to have a teaching certificate as an elected superintendent. But the settlement agreement includes stipulations — two years' probation, a $1,000 fine to be paid during the probationary period and a requirement that Hanna take college level classes in leadership and education ethics — if he becomes employed in a position that requires such certification, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.

Hanna acknowledges that even with the settlement, DeSantis, who has launched a campaign for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, could still try to oust him from office. He has removed other elected officials in Florida, including a prosecutor in the Tampa Bay area who disagreed with the governor's positions limiting abortion and medical care for transgender teens and indicated he might not enforce new laws in those areas.

Hanna criticized the governor multiple times on social media and in school board meetings since DeSantis banned mask mandates during the pandemic. He said that has made him a target for political retaliation.

“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 an April statement.

In 2020, Hanna, a Democrat running as an independent, was elected to a second four-year term with 60% of the vote. He plans to run for reelection next year.

The settlement was reached after Hanna sent Diaz a letter asking what he proposed to conclude the investigation, the newspaper reported. Hanna said Diaz proposed the reprimand and probationary measures, and the superintendent agreed.

The Associated Press