No reason for partisan school board elections

The following editorial was published in The Daily Sun on Apr 28, 2023.

OUR POSITION: Turning school board races in Florida into potential clashes over party politics does nothing to help students or the state’s goal to be a leader in education.

It will be up to voters in 2024 to right a wrong.

The wrong came when the Republican-dominated Legislature approved a ballot question that would require school board candidates run with an R or D or NPA by their name on the ballot.

It’s a move favored by Gov. Ron DeSantis and it’s happening in other states across America as Republicans turn their attention to school boards to begin the foundation of their anti-woke agenda — fueled by a hefty flow of donations from conservative groups.

The proposal (HJR 31) will go on the 2024 ballot and, if approved by 60% of voters, it would mean partisan elections could begin in 2026.

The fight for control of our schools broke out in the COVID pandemic and it has become a freight train of momentum resulting in conservatives taking over school boards and banning books and putting pressure on administrators and teachers to walk the line.

What has become a hometown battle between conservatives who believe schools have become too liberal and too influential on sexual topics while allowing critical race theory to be taught — which about every school district in the state denies — has come to a head. And educators and liberals are fighting back, accusing Republican politicians of being extremists who would alter history in the classrooms and ban books for no good reason.

The 1776 Project PAC, a conservative money machine, has poured more than $2 million into school board races so far, according to a story by WUSF in St. Petersburg.

We don’t know if the group was involved in Sarasota County School Board races in 2022, but we do know that the conservative winners that flipped the board into a 4-1 majority for Republicans, were well financed and made it clear they were running as a Republican team — although the race was nonpartisan.

The tide has turned so quickly that we have Gov. Ron DeSantis openly endorsing school board candidates. That was unheard of before COVID.

Sen. Joe Gruters, who sponsored the bill to put the amendment on the 2024 ballot, said it was merely an opportunity to have “full-transparency elections.”

Gruters said the school board races are already partisan and the public should be aware of who they are voting for.

This bill is not the only move to alter education and school boards in Florida.

The Legislature is also looking at and may have passed by the time you read this, bills that would limit school board members to eight-year terms. They also would require school board candidates to live in districts they plan to represent at the time they register to run. Neither of those ideas give us heartburn, although there does not seem to be an urgent need for either.

Perhaps Gruters is right about politics being involved in schools now. We don’t see that in Charlotte or DeSoto counties, however. At least it is not obvious if it is true.

School board members should only be focused on providing the greatest education possible for students and producing an environment that gives students the best chance to thrive and graduate.

We believe partisan races will only serve to bring acrimony to school boards and end up wasting valuable time debating political goals instead of what’s best for students.

We recommend voting NO on the 2024 constitutional amendment to allow partisan school board elections.

 Image Credits: Image by Venita Oberholster from Pixabay