GOP lawmakers say that partisan school boards would provide greater transparency for voters, but Democrats and other critics argue that nonpartisan boards should serve all families in Florida’s massive education system rather than cater to a particular political party.
The voters would be the ones to make the decision — through a Constitutional amendment on the ballot — if the proposed legislation is successful in the 2023 session.
And that's exactly where Rep. Doug Bankson thinks the legislation should be.
"When it comes to the school of thought (no pun intended) regarding partisan school board elections, it is quite a mixed bag of opinions," said Bankson, the State House District 39 representative, which includes all of Apopka. "Some press for disclosure for the public to know where candidates stand, while others believe it will create divisiveness. I could list arguments both for and against. The fact is that for the large majority of Florida's history, school board elections were partisan, but that alone is not a reason to do the same. The partisan division may have a net result in a lockout of the party in the minority and leave a large segment feeling they have no choice. The focus needs to be on what will produce the best environment for education, and coupled with school choice options, there is a new frontier for parent-led, student-focused education. The proposed bill puts the issue to a public referendum, and I’m comfortable with letting the voters decide. From there, we must all learn to work together and make educational excellence and student preparedness the goal."
Bankson voted in favor of the bill.
The legislation, SJR 94, is now heading to the full Senate for consideration. The state House has already approved the measure.
Florida voters would determine if the races for non-partisan district school board members should instead be partisan affairs, potentially teeing up for partisan politics in 67 school districts across the state.
The bill would be presented as a constitutional amendment on the ballot of the next general election or at an earlier special election to make school board races partisan and signify whether a candidate is a Democrat, a Republican, a different party all together, or even not affiliated with a party.
The legislation finished its final committee stop Tuesday morning during the Senate Rules Committee after very little discussion from the lawmakers, though some Democrats voted against the bill.
Sen. Joe Gruters, a Republican representing parts of Manatee and Sarasota counties, is a sponsor of the bill. He argues that the partisan school board elections would provide greater transparency for voters. He was formerly the chair of the Republican Party of Florida and argues that “all these elections are partisan.”
“You can say I’m an expert in partisan politics because I was the chairman of the state party and longtime chairman of my local party,” Gruters told lawmakers Tuesday. “And, I want to say, all these races are partisan now. What we’re doing is we’re pulling the bag off of people’s heads, allowing people to have full knowledge of where people stand.”
While those Democrats who opposed the bill did not discuss their opposition on Tuesday, previous opposition to the legislation argued that school board elections should remain nonpartisan.
Melissa Byrd, the Orange County School Board Member representing District 7 (which includes Apopka), is already frustrated with the politics she is experiencing during meetings.
"I’m focused on our students and teachers, not political games in Tallahassee," Byrd said. "But from what I’ve seen, only extreme partisans think politics should be in schools. I have witnessed a disturbing change in my time on the school board over the last few years. Valuable time and energy that should be dedicated to education policy and practice is now dominated by refereeing political fights. It doesn’t make our schools better, and it’s hurting our kids and their education."
Another concern with the bill involves No Party Affiliate voters who would be cut out from the part of the election process of school board candidates, as Florida is a closed primary state.
Meanwhile, the House version of the bill has already been approved by the full House on a 79 to 34 vote, with Democrats in opposition to the legislation. Both the House and Senate will have to approve the same legislation before it goes to Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.
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