Dems fume as school board term limits and partisan elections pass out of subcommittee
By Barbara Haiss Martin
In February, the Florida House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee debated, then voted on Joint Resolution HJR-31 which gives voters a choice to restore partisan school board elections through a Constitutional Amendment. The subcommittee also voted on House Bill HB-477 which seeks to set eight-year term limits on school board members.
On the subcommittee were 18 members: 13 Republicans and five Democrats, including local Representative Doug Bankson (R) of Apopka.
Rep. Spencer Roach (R) of Lee and Charlotte counties, co-sponsor and originator of the HJR-31 explained the resolution’s intent was to provide transparency for the voter. He said it was the No. 1 issue in his district until the arrival of Hurricane Ian.
All five Democrats opposed the resolution because they deemed it was important to keep politics out of schools and the school board.
Roach said there are “real differences between the two parties about curriculum, bathrooms and how the superintendent should be voted in.” He reiterated the importance of transparency for the voter throughout his rebuttal to the Democrats.
Comments of committee members opposed to the joint resolution
Rep. Kevin Chambliss (D) of Miami-Dade County said: “Transparency may be the intent, but the results will be different. This will bring the extreme ideologies into the school board.”
Rep. Angie Nixon (D) of Duval County said, “Voters already decided in 1998 about this.” She was referring to the 1998 Amendment 11 which passed granting, among other things, non-partisan school board member elections. The Amendment was placed on the ballot by the Constitutional Revision Commission.
Roach responded: “Yes, but it was one item in a mixed bag of seven education election issues – did they really vote for this one? We’ve had partisan elections for 150 years. The goal is to provide voters with as much information as possible.”
Nixon further stated: “This is not about transparency. Keep politics out of our schools! Freedom from party politics!” Her voice got louder and she nearly came out of her seat while raising her hand to emphasize her point. “This is absurd! It will create a contentious climate. You see the craziness of party politics in D.C.”
At one point, Nixon asked Roach, “Are you more concerned about politics than our children?”
Roach responded, “Those two things are not mutually exclusive.”
Chambliss was also concerned that NPA (No Party Affiliation) voters would not be allowed to vote in the primary.
“They are not even a party,” he said.
Roach replied that the NPA designation is seen by the State of Florida as a party and if they had other NPAs wanting to run for a school board seat, there would be an NPA primary – “so, yes, they can vote in a primary.”
Comments from the public
Five people spoke from the following organizations: The League of Women Voters, Fund Education Now, Pastors for Florida Children/Together for Hope and the Florida AFL-CIO who all said they could not support the resolution. They all agreed that it was best to “keep politics out of schools.” One woman implied it would draw money into campaigns from those “extreme ideologies.”
Also opposing the resolution, but not speaking, was the Florida PTA. Supporting the resolution but not speaking were the Florida Citizens Alliance and Opportunity Solutions Project.
Then there was Shawn Frost of Vero Beach who apologized for being late. He said he had already spoken at another committee and just happened to be walking by and came in.
Frost said, “I’ve heard them say they want to get politics out of the schools, but they just want to get one political party out of the schools.” He said he was in favor of the measure.
There were eight lobbyists interested in the resolution from five organizations: Florida Supervisors of Elections, Inc, Florida Citizens Alliance, Florida Education Association, Opportunity Solutions Project and the Florida School Boards Associations. None of them spoke.
A few days before the committee meeting, lobbyist Danielle Thomas with the Florida School Boards Association, returned my call about what her remarks would be at the meeting.
“Oh, I never speak at the committee meetings,” Thomas said. “I only speak to the sponsor of the bill.”
Several Republicans spoke in favor of the resolution including Bankson, co-sponsor Jenna Persons-Mulicka of Lee County, Thad Altman of Brevard County, and Fabian Basabe and Juan Carlos Porras who are both from Miami-Dade County. Bankson, who spoke just before the vote, stated he agreed with what his fellow Republicans had said.
“I know it passed in 1998, but there were many other issues in that (Amendment). I am content to hear what the voters have to say,” Bankson said.
The resolution passed 13 to 5 along party lines. It now heads next to the Ethics, Elections and Open Government subcommittee.
House Bill – 477
House Bill -477 on term limits of school board members also passed 14 to 5 with Chambliss, the lone Democrat, voting for the bill stating he agreed with the eight-year term limit. There were discussions about whether the term limits should be eight or twelve years.
Chambliss said in Miami-Dade, they had one school board member who was on the board for more than 20 years and was just voted back in during the 2022 election.
“We need new faces and ideas,” he said.
Representative Susan Valdez, the Democrat Ranking Member on the subcommittee and former teacher, spoke about her achievements as a former Hillsborough County school board member and why an eight-year term limit is not enough to accomplish what is needed to get done especially in turning around low-performing schools.
Rep. Alex Rizo (R) of Miami-Dade and sponsor of the bill said he thought eight years was enough for any school board member to get their agenda accomplished especially with the increased involvement of parents over the last two years.
Valdez and Nixon were both getting blustery about the bill with Nixon spouting loudly, “Children’s lives are at stake! Especially Black and brown lives. Leave your politics at the door!”
Shawn Frost also spoke on this bill but not before revealing he was a “recovering school board chairman and member.” His slogan on this bill was “8 is great, shelve the 12.”
The bill heads next to the Education and Employment Committee.
Barbara Haiss Martin is an award-winning journalist/editor who has lived in Seminole County with her husband, John, since 1972.
To read the full text of HJR-31 and HB-477, visit myfloridahouse.gov. You can also follow legislative issues at Ballotpedia.org. The Florida legislature is scheduled to convene their Regular Session on Tuesday, March 7, 2023 and to adjourn on Friday, May 5, 2023.