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Leon County Superintendent pushes back on proposed funding cuts

Superintendent Rocky Hanna spoke before lawmakers Tuesday evening
Posted at 9:06 PM, Mar 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-02 21:13:50-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WTXL) — Leon County Schools stands to lose more than $2.7 million; all because of its mask mandate at the start of the 2021-22 school year.

"We were just trying to protect our children. We're trying to keep our children safe and keep our schools open," said Hanna.

In August, Superintendent Hanna made masks mandatory for students too young to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

"We were simply challenging the Department of Health's emergency rule that was hastily created. They ended up repealing that rule and replacing it with another rule that once the legislature came back to town during a special session, and codified a statute, we were in compliance."

Now, the "Putting Parents First Adjustment," would pull $200 million from the twelve counties that defied Governor DeSantis' emergency order by requiring students to wear mask at the start of the 2021-2022 school year.

Governor Ron DeSantis supports the bill. His office says the Governor doesn't support cutting funding to the classroom, such as student services, teacher salaries, and school operations.

In a statement, Deputy Press Secretary Bryan Griffin says,

So long as the cuts come from administrator salaries that exceed $100,000.00 and will not impact funding for classrooms, the Governor would support this measure of accountability.
Bryan Griffin

Superintendent Hanna says that bill would cut jobs for about 19 employees.

"We're already razor thin at the top. But if I lose some of that some of this funding, we're talking about critical positions on my Chief of Safety and Security salary would be gone. My Chief Financial Officer salary would be gone. I can't operate without a Chief of Safety and Security and a Chief Financial Officer. It is just ridiculous to think we could," said Hanna.

So Hanna took his concerns straight to the source.

"I wanted Representative Fine to see me face to face," Hanna said.

On Tuesday night, Hanna spoke at the Pre-K-12 State Budget Conference hearing.

"It was important for me to be there to see Representative Fine face to face. To show him that this is a big deal to us. And that losing this money is going to be impactful not only to our school district, but to our children. The house has already made up their mind about this punishment. The governor has made up his mind endorsing the House about this punishment. So I just went last night to appeal to the Senate and their sense of decency, and to do what's right," Hanna said.

In late 2021, those School Board members had their wages temporarily garnished. The Governor's Office says that punishment wasn't enough.

As you may be aware, funding for school board members’ salaries withheld last fall was given back to those districts after they lifted the mandates. No funding for actual school operations was ever impacted. Up to this point, the administrators and politicians who broke the law haven’t seen any permanent consequences of their decisions.

Hanna says at the time, the mask mandate appealed to parents like Wendy Halleck.

"These punitive measures are so far off base it's almost unbelievable. Our local School Board was making a decision to the best of their ability to try to protect their students and their staff at the schools. It's a pandemic, you know, and nobody knew which way it would go. They erred on the side of caution to try to keep everybody safe," Halleck said.

Halleck says the current legislation is an unfair punishment.

"The idea that they could now be penalized for that; which hurts students too. So you're penalizing the students because, even if the staff is administration is not directly related to the students, it still trickles down. It affects our students ability to be educated well and to be taken care of well. I think that it's really a punishing move. It's vindictive and it really is a misplace gesture," she said.

But Superintendent Hanna isn't backing down.

"I'm sure there will be legal challenges if it does come to pass, but I'm hoping that it won't. If it does, I'm sure there will be legal challenges that that would appeal to the judicial system just to get some relief," he said.

Local government attorney Jamie Cole says there is a basis for a lawsuit.

"It's certainly unprecedented. Nothing like this has ever happened before and there's certainly some legal questions that would need to be answered," Cole said.

Cole previously represented some of those districts- including Leon County- in the challenge against the mask mandate last semester.

While it is too early for the counties to call on Cole's help again, he did offer the reasons a lawsuit isn't out of the question.

"Under the Florida Constitution under Article 9, Section 1. The education of children is a fundamental value of the people in the State of Florida. The Constitution provides that it is a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children," Cole said. "It does seem like by doing what they're talking about, there would not be sufficient funds to do adequate provision of education."

He says that's not the only legal basis.

"In 1973, the Florida legislature enacted the Florida Education Finance Program. That established a state policy and equalized funding to guarantee to each student in the Florida public education system. That's basically the availability to have adequate programs and services and it's supposed to be equal. There's no provision in that law as far as I can see that would allow them to use a penalty to penalize school districts," Cole said.

Superintendent Hanna says he's hopefully it won't have to go before a judge.

"I think we had the wound, but it took School Board member salaries for a period of time in the fall, you're letting that wound heal, and here they were just pulling the scab off and let them start to bleed again. I'm hopeful that the Senate is going to do the right thing that we need to move on," Hanna said.

If those 12 School districts lose their money, those dollars will go to the other 55 throughout the state.