TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Politics in education is getting more intense in Florida as the 2022 legislative session continues. Two bills are making their way through both chambers that would change how the state conducts its local school board elections.
One piece of proposed legislation, House Bill 1467, would take away school board members’ salaries and change how school library materials are stored and published online.
HB 1467, sponsored by Rep. Sam Garrison (R-Fleming Island), was said to be intended at taking the politics out of school boards, and prioritize parental engagement. He said, when introducing the legislation, that the bill was to eliminate the salaries and bring Florida’s school boards into alignment with similar structures nationally, where other school board members do not receive compensation for their duties.
The bill faced opposition from Garrison’s Democratic colleagues, with questions coming from Rep. Ana Eskamani (D-Orlando) and Rep. Kristen Arrington (D-Kissimmee). While Arrington’s questions focused on the library and materials portions of the bill, Eskamani was primarily focused on the potential to prevent some members of the community from being elected due to gaps in income or wealth.
“For eliminating the school board salaries, I’m curious if you have any concerns that that only allows wealthy people to become school board members,” Eskamani asked Garrison.
Garrison said he did not. When pressed further, the congressman said it was about prioritizing parents, not politics.
“By eliminating school board salaries, what I’m trying to get at is, take the, quite frankly, it’s about parents, not politicians. I want to get the politics out of it. We want to make sure our schools are focused on parental engagement, parental involvement, and by eliminating, quite frankly, the financial incentive for politicians to use this as an opportunity either as a launching pad to a political career, or maybe a landing pad by which to get a salary,” Garrison said at the Jan. 20 committee hearing. “What we’re trying to do is engage it and make an opportunities for families and parents who are already serving at the PTA, their athletic association, things of that nature, the folks who are there for that reason.”
During public testimony, Chris Doolan spoke on behalf of the Small School District Consortium, an organization that lobbies on behalf of smaller school districts across Florida. Doolan, in a similar vein to Eskamani, focused his opposition to the bill mainly on the financial aspects for board members.
He described the current political and educational landscape as being tough on board members and communities, and a time of division.
“It’s very divisive, school board members have tremendous responsibilities with hundreds of statutory requirements, and I do think that in full participation requires, engagement and participation from the community,” Doolan said. He said that there are events all public officials are needed at, from county fairs to raffles, that they “have to participate in. And that just goes with the job.”
Doolan said the issue of who would be most affected by the removal of board member salaries would be individuals who are not independently wealthy, those who may be the sole breadwinners of their families, or those who work multiple jobs. He said the policy, if it passes, addresses compensation, but that giving a salary provides an opportunity, which might be taken away.
Focused on the notion of other states compared to Florida, and how Garrison mentioned the majority of other states do not pay their school board members, Doolan questioned how it mattered.
“As far as other states, I’m going to be relatively straightforward, a little bit snarky. Who cares what they do? This is Florida. You have major responsibilities in Florida. I don’t mean to say ignore them [other states],” Doolan said. “But Florida doesn’t…we’re not led by the rest of the states as to what to do with education policy, we aren’t.” He finished by saying he opposed the provision.
While Garrison’s bill would seek to remove politics from school board decisions by taking away compensation to, as he put it, prevent school boards from becoming launch points or landing pads for politicians, state senator Joe Gruters (R-Sarasota) filed legislation that would force politics into every school board election.
The other bill that could change how Florida education operates was Senate Bill 244, which would make elections for district school boards partisan, requiring candidates to declare their party affiliations and be voted into office in a partisan election.
As a separate piece of legislation, it further adds to the political tension of the season.
The change to current Florida Statutes is small, when it comes to text. It simply changes the law to read “In each school district there shall be a school board composed of five or more members chosen by vote of the electors in a partisan election for appropriately staggered terms of four years, as provided by law.”
The bill also says that should it pass, board members would not be elected in this new, partisan method, until the November 2024 general election, though primaries could begin before then.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a huge change. Most people running for office are political, they hold a core belief system, values, or positions on policy that identify with a particular political party in some fashion. Adding a label showing what party a candidate identifies with, the Democratic or Republic parties in Florida or no party affiliation, wouldn’t make a big difference in terms of operating elections, until the ballots are sent out.
Making school board elections partisan would immediately make it impossible to vote for a candidate of a different party than yours, according to a Senate analysis of the bill.
The only time this change would not have an effect would be when all candidates are of the same party, and any elector could cast a vote, regardless of party. The change would make Florida’s electoral landscape decide every board election result.
In counties with more Republican voters, the effect would be straightforward, where Republican candidates would easily win the majority, and parties of either side could not vote for a different opponent. Members of neither party wouldn’t be able to vote for them at all, unless a No-Party candidate was on the ballot.
Taken together, HB 1467 and SJR 244 set up an inter-party battle over removing, or adding, politics to school board elections directly and definitively. SJR 244 has not been through committee yet. Its House equivalent, HJR 35, has only been read once, and has not had a hearing.
HB 1467 passed its first committee test in the House of Representatives on Jan. 20, and was voted upon “favorably” in the Education and Employment Committee. You can watch the whole committee meeting here.