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The Florida School Board drops its national membership as Republicans consider making local board races partisan

 Members of the Leon County School Board preside over a meeting from a long dais.
Craig Moore
Members of the Leon County School Board preside over a meeting from a long dais.

Florida Republicans want voters to reverse a 1998 constitutional amendment that created non-partisan school board races. School boards have been under fire, most recently, over backlash to school closures, mask-wearing, and teachings on history, racism, and sexual identity.

"There seems to be a movement afoot to remove school board members, groups coming together to 'take them out.' And there’s a strong hostility toward them and that really bothers me a lot," said Sen Tina Polsky, D- Boca Raton, during a recent hearing on the proposal.

Polsky is opposed to Republican Senator and state GOP Chairman Joe Gruters’ proposal to ask voters to make school board elections partisan again. Gruters says the school board races have grown increasingly political—and he believes it's time the races make clear where candidates stand on issues so voters have more transparency.

“Sometimes even when you have a candidate that’s of a certain political persuasion you don’t always get the outcome that you desired…but it at least gives you the thought that if they registered with a certain party, those core beliefs and values that you commonly share should be there when they’re making those votes,” Gruters said.

During the pandemic, local board meetings have devolved into chaos with angry parent groups demanding members resign over school closures, mask-wearing—and how racism and its role in history, is being taught.

“I’m not sure having people’s name as an R or D necessarily labels them," said Sen. Lori Berman, D- Palm Beach. "I don’t see why you’re thinking that’ll lead to less acrimony because I think we already know there’s acrimony ... people will be more angry at somebody who is a Republican who doesn’t vote the way they want them to vote.”  

“I don‘t think they heck with their party to see what’s in the best interest of a child. Their core belief is we need to do what’s in the best interest of children, not politics," said Dawn Steward with Florida PTA.

It, along with most school boards and The League of Women voters, are opposed to making the races partisan. One argument against the bill is that people who are registered with no party affiliation would be locked out of partisan primaries. A third of registered voters are listed as NPA’s. The solution for that is a simple one to Michael Johnson of Altamonte Springs. He says if people want to vote in partisan races, they should pick a side.

“The school boards are driving elections now. The moms are mad as hell about the values that are not being taught in our schools now… We look at the slate of the school board membership, we don’t know if they’re communist, Sharia Law believers or if they believe in the US Constitution. When a Republican name or Democrat ballot, we do have a clearer black-and-white situation.”

Several Florida school boards clashed with the state over mandatory mask policies for students—with Gov. Ron DeSantis ultimately winning the legal fights. The boards also came under fire after the National School Boards Association wrote a letter to the Department of Justice asking for help in tamping down on threats leveled at board members. That letter made the situation worse, as the national group likened some parent actions to domestic terrorism. The Florida School Boards Association recently ended its membership with the national group.

“We had a number of concerns, including questions and concerns around governance, leadership, transparency, and a failure to embrace non-partisanship,” said Executive Director Andrea Messina.

The damage is already done. At least one proposal has been filed to restrict how school districts instruct on such issues.

Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

Lynn Hatter has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas. She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative.
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