Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Constitution Revision Commission panel advances two education proposals, holds off on a third

Proposals to limit Florida school board members to two four-year terms, and to end the election of district superintendents, won strong support Monday from the state's Constitution Revision Commission Education Committee — their first stop on the path to the 2018 ballot.

But a third amendment recommendation from commissioner Erika Donalds, to end the salaries for all school board members, proved a step too far for the panel. That measure was poised for defeat, with four members opposed, but instead was postponed on a technicality after staff forgot to ask Donalds for her vote.

Now the Collier County School Board member is contemplating whether to offer amendments to resolve her fellow commissioners' concerns, or to withdraw the proposal altogether.

"I haven't decided," Donalds said.

She promoted the trio of ideas as a way to overhaul school district governance so that board positions are not seen as a career, while the superintendent job is considered more as a profession than a political post.

Board members should not serve for decades, becoming creatures of the institution rather than public servants, she suggested. Meanwhile,  Donalds added, superintendents need to be viewed as chief executives, with higher qualifications than being registered voters in their districts and having no disqualifying criminal background.

She called her ideas "best practices."

The term limits proposal gained unanimous committee support, and the superintendent appointment had just one dissenting vote, despite some public comment that the two moves would reduce local control of the government.

Commissioners generally agreed with the concept that a school board seat should not become a career, while the superintendent job should be one.

As state education commissioner Pam Stewart, who sits on the Constitution Revision Commission, put it, the superintendency "is in fact a career and should be treated as such. As much as of the politics as can be taken out of it … should be taken away from the office."

With those two amendments tackled, the committee turned to the pay proposal. Donalds called Florida an extreme outlier in providing salaries to board members, whose posts are volunteer in most other states.

Several members of the public criticized the idea as "elitist," though, and suggested that financial independence should not become a criterion for serving on the school board. Florida school boards are different from those in other states, Florida School Boards Association executive director Andrea Messina added, because they are independent local governments with taxing authority.

Opponents contended that such a move, in combination with the other proposals, would negatively alter the diversity of the people able to seek and hold the elected government office.

"We need to consider people from all walks of life," said Marie-Claire Leman, representing the parent activist group Common Ground.

That message resonated with several of the commission members. Committee vice chairwoman Nicole Washington, Miami Beach-based education consultant, observed that her own peers on various boards have often said they cannot afford to volunteer for causes they would otherwise support.

"If we want to encourage diversity," she said, "this would limit it. … I know it would from my pool of colleagues."

She suggested finding other ways to reform board pay, if necessary, through the legislative process.

Commissioner Darlene Jordan, a member of the Board of Governors from Palm Beach County, shared that view, adding her concern that smaller counties particularly could suffer a lack of participation if the pay were eliminated.

That amendment did not gain a majority vote, and was withheld on a technicality. Its future remains in limbo.

The two proposals viewed favorably, meanwhile, next head to the commission's Local Government committee, which Donalds chairs.

The committee also heard lengthy reports on the class size amendment and the use of state funds for religious schools. It has proposals on those issues coming forward in future meetings.

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