Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Proposals on school board term limits, elected superintendents move ahead

Despite pushback from the people who would be most affected, two proposed constitutional amendments aiming to change the governance of Florida public school districts gained support from a second committee of the Constitution Revision Commission on Thursday.

The proposals to limit school board members to eight consecutive years in office, and to end the election of superintendents, next head to the full commission for consideration whether to place them on the 2018 ballot. They already moved through the commission's education committee.

To get before voters, they still require 22  votes from the commission. To pass, they would need 60 percent support at the polls.

Collier County School Board member Erika Donalds shepherded both recommendations through the Local Government Committee, which she chairs. She cast the measures as ways to end political service on school boards as a career, while promoting the superintendency as a profession rather than a political post.

[Related coverage: Term limit proposal gets Florida school board members talking]

She downplayed opposition from long-serving school board members and elected superintendents, suggesting they had personal interests that clouded their judgment.

"Term limits have overwhelming support by members of the public, and very little support by elected officials," Donalds said at one point.

Those officials argued that the proposals aimed to reduce local control of local schools, and that the need was not there.

"I don't understand the reason this is being brought forth. It's not a problem," Bay County superintendent Bill Husfelt said of the elected superintendents proposal. "People don't want to give up their right to vote. I would urge you not to do this."

Clay County political activist Travis Christensen said the voters in his county already held a vote whether to appoint their superintendent, and it failed. The law provides for other counties to do the same, he noted.

[Related coverage: Elected vs. appointed? Florida's superintendent selection process gets a closer look]

Ruth Melton, director of advocacy for the Florida School Boards Association, argued that term limits also are unnecessary for board members. Over the past four election cycles, she said, 40 percent of board seats have resulted in member turnover.

"We believe very strongly that voters have already imposed a natural term limit," Melton told the committee.

Such positions gained some traction on the panel.

Indian River County commissioner Bob Solari opposed both measures, saying he supports local control, not centralization and homogenization at the state level.

He suggested that the CRC should focus on more significant issues that need resolution, noting that too many proposals before voters could hurt all of them.

Others on the committee pushed the measures forward.

Florida A&M University trustee Nicole Washington, for instance, said she fundamentally agreed with the idea of term limits to keep fresh perspectives on school boards. She did call for clarification on how the limits would be implemented, and whether they would be retroactive — an issue that caused much confusion.

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco cast the only other opposing vote, against the superintendent item, as the two proposals moved on. The CRC plans to hold more public hearings around the state in early 2018, giving interested parties more opportunities to speak out.

Earlier in the day, the commission's Education Committee held a two-hour session, where it heard reports on issues but voted on no proposals.

One idea that did get universally panned during the conversation, though, was the notion of commemorating school start dates in the constitution.

"I would certainly question the wisdom of that," Donalds said, adding that the issue generates more parent interest locally than just about any other that school boards deal with.

The issue is best left to lawmakers, who properly assign some flexible guidelines and then leave the matter to districts, said Patricia Levesque, CEO of Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education.

The committee had planned a conversation on the mission and intent of public education, as defined in the constitution. That idea gained relevance this week, as an appellate court ruled the language sufficiently vague to determine whether its goals of uniformity and and efficiency were being carried out.

But the discussion didn't get off the ground, as staff brought a report on colleges that was only tangentially relevant. Members said they liked the language in the Massachusetts constitution preamble, and asked to bring back the topic for future debate over "what Article IX should look like" before they conclude their business.

The committees are scheduled to reconvene on Jan. 12.

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