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Florida Political Leaders Warn Nonpartisan School Board Members: Support Our Party's Causes Or Else

Photo of the Palm Beach County School Board in 2018
Bruce R. Bennett/Palm Beach Post
The Palm Beach County School Board meets in March 2018.

Education policy making has always been nonpartisan in intention but, in reality, it's getting more political.

As culture wars over how to teach about race in public schools intensify across Florida and around the country, so has the pressure on school board members to fall in line with their political allies — despite that their elected positions are nonpartisan.

Last week, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed for a new statewide regulation banning the teaching of critical race theory, a discipline that examines how race and racism intersect with history. The state Board of Education adopted the rule last Thursday, despite pushback from educators, students and civil rights groups who alleged the move was meant to whitewash or downplay the most racist chapters of U.S. history.

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The decision came days after DeSantis vowed during an appearance on Fox News to go after school board members who are registered Republicans and vote against the governor's agenda.

"We're also not going to support any Republican candidate for school board who supports critical race theory in all 67 counties — or who supports mandatory masking of schoolchildren,” DeSantis said during the program last Saturday night.

"We're going to get the Florida political apparatus involved so that we can make sure there's not a single school board Republican who ever indulges critical race theory," DeSantis said.

Omari Hardy wants to see more Democrats doing what DeSantis is doing.

"I disagree with the governor on issues but the governor sounds like someone who cares about the issues he cares about," said Hardy, a Democratic state representative from West Palm Beach, congressional candidate and frequent critic of DeSantis.

"The governor is acting like what happens at our school board meetings matter," Hardy said. "He is doing what Democrats across the state and across the country should be doing, which is using every possible lever to ensure that policy makers understand what's at stake."

Hardy pulled such a lever earlier this month. He asked the executive leadership of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party to censure four school board members who voted to edit the school district's newly adopted equity statement, deleting a commitment to "dismantling structures rooted in white advantage" after a backlash from white parents.

School board elections are nonpartisan; candidates do not run in partisan primaries, and their party affiliations don't appear next to their names on the ballot. But the four members who voted to remove the reference to "white advantage" were registered Democrats.

Hardy, who is Black, said he wanted the party to reprimand the school board members, in part to assure Black activists that Democrats would be held accountable when they take positions seen as inconsistent with a commitment to racial justice.

In the resolution, which county Democratic leaders approved, the party asserts that the four school board members' decision "to weaken the School District's equity statement runs counter to our Democratic values." It also states the school board members "have lost the trust and confidence of many activists and leaders of color."

Substance of the debate aside, Hardy defended the appropriateness of the party getting involved in school board business, despite that it's meant to be nonpartisan.

"These same school board members — I see them at our annual party fundraisers and dinners and galas, trafficking in being a Democrat," Hardy said. "So if you are going to draw support from the party when you're not on the dais, then you should expect that the party would express its judgment when you make bad decisions on the dais."

Two of the school board members who were censured — Chair Frank Barbieri and Barbara McQuinn, who are both white — say they responded to the party's decision by changing their affiliations.

"I do not answer to the Democratic Party simply because there is a 'D' after my name," Barbieri wrote in an email. "School board races are nonpartisan for the simple reason that politics should play no part in deciding what is good and not good for children.

"I am replacing the 'D' with an 'I' and will continue to do what I've always done — make my decisions independently of partisan politics," said Barbieri, suggesting he plans to switch to an independent affiliation.

McQuinn said she changed her registration to "no party affiliation."

She said she supports the equity statement as originally adopted but she voted to remove the phrase "white advantage" because she worried the backlash over a few words would distract from the larger goal: improving the quality of education for students of color in Palm Beach County.

Her colleague, Marcia Andrews, who is Black, made the same argument and also voted to remove the words "white advantage." Vice Chair Karen Brill, who is white, was the fourth registered Democrat school board member to support the change. Neither Andrews nor Brill responded to requests for comment for this story.

Despite the censure from the county Democratic Party, McQuinn stressed she is committed to ensuring equity for non-white students in Palm Beach County.

"Equitable means you get what you need. And the fact of the matter is, because of white advantage in our country, many of our Black students — and now, of course, our Hispanic and Guatemalan and our other cultures — they need more because they started with less," she said during an interview with WLRN.

McQuinn said she traces her commitment to equity back to her experiences examining her own white advantage and racist ideas when she was a teacher and principal in majority-white schools in Palm Beach County in the 1990s.

"I was teaching a math class — I think an Algebra 2 class, a higher level class — at Palm Beach Gardens High School, … and we had open house," McQuinn said, relating an anecdote from her time in the classroom. "Frankly, we didn't have a lot of Black males in an Algebra 2 class. So one of the dads, who was a Black male, asked me, 'How is my son doing?'

"My answer had to do with, 'He behaves really well,'" she said. "Well, that's ridiculous. That's not what he was asking me. But my white frame of reference was: He was referring to behavior."

Now she describes that interaction as a "white microaggression" and one of the most embarrassing moments of her life.

"Never forgot about that," she said. "Never made that mistake again."

On another occasion, she offered to drive a couple of her students, Black girls, to school on the weekend to work on a homecoming float.

"I have the two girls in my car, and they see one of their buddies, a Black female, in the parking lot. And they said: 'Come with us. It isn't so scary,'" McQuinn said. "I had no idea that they were afraid — literally, physically afraid — to come into a white neighborhood."

She said she knew some white people were afraid to go into Black neighborhoods, but she hadn't considered that the opposite was also true. It was an "eye opener," she said.

She disagreed that the district's equity statement was weaker without the reference to "white advantage."

"The entire equity statement talks about dismantling structures of racism. It's a strong, powerful statement," McQuinn said.

"I can live with taking out 'white,'" she said, "because I do think it stops us from moving forward."

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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