Florida’s nonpartisan school boards and the politics that surround the state’s education system have accelerated the political discourse since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, some GOP lawmakers are pushing to overhaul those boards by requiring elections to be partisan, meaning school board members would be connected to their political parties.
Florida’s local school boards, which oversee public school districts in 67 counties, are currently nonpartisan. That goes back more than 20 years, following a ballot initiative in November 1998. At that time, voters approved allowing school board members to be nonpartisan, according to the Florida Division of Elections.
But nowadays, State Sen. Joe Gruters, a Republican who represents Sarasota County and part of Charlotte County, has filed legislation (SJR 244), ostensibly to give voters an opportunity to understand school board candidates’ core beliefs. Gruters is chairman of the Senate Education committee in the Legislature and is chair of the Republican Party of Florida.
“It doesn’t matter what county you were in, these races are already partisan,” Gruters said at a Senate Ethics and Elections committee last week. “There’s been no time like the last 24 months where we’ve seen how important it is to elect school board members that reflect our values.”
The legislation, Gruters said, would “stop the shell games.”
Gruters also said: “At the end of the day, the reason why we join political parties is to affiliate with likeminded people. And we know their core beliefs and values. May not be 100 percent of the time…but deep down our core beliefs and fundamental values should be pretty close to what you believe.”
State Rep. Spencer Roach, representing part of Lee County, is the sponsor in the State House, along with State Rep. Tyler Sirois, who represents part of Brevard County.
The legislation highlights an increased, and in some cases, frightening focus on school boards and their roles as elected officials. Since the pandemic, some school board members have experienced threatening situations such as verbal abuse, vandalism, and other forms of intimidation as tensions rose over mask mandates and control over Florida’s public schools.
In other instances, the DeSantis administration penalized certain local board members by taking away their pay, even though the boards wanted to keep children safe during the pandemic by using strict mask mandates.
Should the Legislature approve the bill during the 2022 legislative session, the measure would be left to Florida voters to decide on the issue.
The legislation would require an amendment to the Florida Constitution to change the nonpartisan election of school boards to “partisan,” starting with the general election in 2024. However, the political parties can hold primaries to determine their candidate before the 2024 general election.
State Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat who represents part of Miami-Dade County, asked about No Party Affiliation (NPA) voters. She is currently a candidate for the 2022 gubernatorial election.
These voters are not registered for either parties, and because Florida has closed primaries, NPA voters cannot participate in the primary election in either party. “So, all those NPA’s will not really have a voice in the primary to select the nominee (for school board members),” Taddeo said last week.
Gruters’ suggestion was that voters can change their registration to vote for the candidate they prefer in the primary.
Elsewhere, some states have already started the switch from partisan to nonpartisan school boards.
Just last month, the Tennessee governor approved legislation to authorize partisan elections for local school boards, according to Ballotpedia.
This month, a lawmaker in Arizona “prefiled” a bill to require school board elections to be partisan, according to the Arizona State Legislature.
In North Carolina, some school boards are partisan and others are not, according to the North Carolina Schools Boards Association.
But not everyone supports such a dramatic change.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel Editorial Board last week described the idea as “dangerous.”
The board wrote: “Florida lawmakers want to go backward and return to partisan school board elections in all 67 counties — a dangerous mistake. It makes no sense to undo a decision Floridians made more than two decades ago when they voted to make school board races nonpartisan, the same as for contests for mayor or for circuit judge. The switch to nonpartisan school elections, the system used in most states, was approved by 64% of voters, and in Broward, it passed by an even larger margin of 71%.
“One sign of trouble ahead is that Florida’s confrontational governor, Ron DeSantis, has pledged to use his ‘political apparatus’ to target board members for defeat in 2022 who have disagreed with his policies or supported critical race theory — a phony issue, since CRT is not taught in Florida. ‘It’s all about creating chaos in our public schools,’ Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, a teacher union, told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board.”
There have been other efforts to adjust how school boards work.
In the 2021 session, Rep. Sam Garrison, a Republican who represents Clay County, sponsored a bill that would have worked to remove the salaries of school board members in order to reduce the “political squabbling” out of a “nonpartisan” and “limited-oversight” position. The bill removed the language on salary cuts.
–Danielle J. Brown, the Florida Phoenix
Jane Gentile-Youd says
Am I the only one sick and tired of being judged first and foremost by “Are you Republican or Democrat”? Do any of you want to be independent thinkers and judge each issue as an individual and not live and breathe on a party line 24/7? I sure hope so .
This is just one more thing added to the list of things that will be forced us in order to control the elections in Republican favor. For all the Reps talk about getting rid of “big government and interference”, they are doing that very thing by changing all the rules by themselves that we will have to live by. Trump is pulling off another coup and this time may succeed.
Eileen Gernet says
So now we are going to live under Republican dictatorship. Here in Florida that would be the outcome of this bill. Let’s keep the schools nonpartisan.
The GOP Republican Corrupt party dictatorship wants to control everything. It is starting to feel like living in a communistic country. They are trying to control who can vote, who’s vote counts and who’s votes don’t count. What kids can read or not read in schools. Controlling woman’s bodies, next thing woman won’t be allowed to work, speak or dress they way they want,
They are against the Build Back Better Plan that helps people and businesses in this country. They never speak about how they want to improve our country only what that dislike and want to control.
They don’t care who dies from the virus and don’t care if children are being killed in schools as long as they can have assault weapons and the NRA donating money to their campaigns.
They are destroying our freedom and the Constitution because they feel the are above the laws on this land and do not have to obey them.
This is what our country is dealing with now and I would bet it is going to get a lot worse.
Michael Cocchiola says
We must be assimilated! We must all join the collective!
I used to say the Sheriff was the best thing going in FPC Now I feel that Flaglerlive and or any other Media Outlet that gives the heads up on whats going down in that County to keep the Residents informed of the ongoing Political Drama. Good Luck Vote Accordingly
Old Guy says
Another nonsensical idea advanced by the Trump Republicans. What we really need are open primaries but I don’t see that happening any time soon. Respect the will of the voters. The most qualified candidates should be elected regardless of party.
We talk against the Repubs in the comment section. Will we vote against them at the ballot box?