Thursday, January 18, 2018
Education

Despite precautions, lawmaker-teacher faces district scrutiny

TAMPA — Since entering politics, Mark Danish has been careful to keep his campaign life separate from his job as a science teacher at Benito Middle School.

Doing so means taking leaves of absence, removing signs from his car at school and leaving leaflets at home.

"I wouldn't distribute anything at school," said Danish, a Democrat who represents northern Hillsborough's District 63 in the state House.

Still, for reasons no one could explain, the Hillsborough County School District acknowledged this week that it has an open file on Danish in its professional standards office.

"It is an open investigation," district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said Thursday. She could not provide any details, including the reason.

Danish said he did not know there was a pending investigation.

He said he remembers being notified months ago that the district was watching him. He's not sure if it was an actual investigation, he said, but he knew the district had a strict policy against campaigning at work.

"I think it's something they do any time someone runs for office, and they just look into it to make sure." He said his principal told him: "Just be very careful what you're doing. Make sure you dot all your I's and cross all your T's and keep everything away from school."

If there was an investigation, he assumed it was concluded because "there wasn't anything there."

The school district's anti-campaigning policy is the subject of a federal lawsuit by George Olmo, a longtime maintenance worker who was fired for giving cafeteria workers petitions in support of School Board member Susan Valdes before her re-election run in 2012.

Olmo alleges he was targeted because Valdes is the board's most vocal critic of superintendent MaryEllen Elia. The district has not responded to the suit, which was filed July 11.

Danish, who faces a challenge in 2014 from Republican rival Shawn Harrison, said he is aware of the Olmo matter and has tried to steer clear of it.

In his own campaign, he said, he was careful not to blur any lines. "It's a very difficult thing to do," he said.

During the 2011-12 school year Danish did not have money for campaign literature, he said. Campaign spending records confirm it was summer before he started buying materials.

He took a leave of absence in the fall of 2012 to campaign, he said. But as careful as he was, he said, "You can't stop people from talking about a person."

He took more leaves to attend committee weeks and the two-month legislative session in the spring. A co-teacher and a long-term substitute filled in successfully for him, he said.

In 2014, he hopes to take the entire spring semester off so he can focus on the campaign once the session is over.

Danish was supported by the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association and said he is proud of his record in Tallahassee. Among other things, he was part of the effort to improve opportunities for vocational students.

"Mission accomplished there," he said. "It's going to be instituted soon."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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