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Two Florida lawmakers propose major changes to school district operations



Two Florida lawmakers have proposed identical legislation seeking permission to break up the state's countywide school districts and make school board elections partisan affairs again.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Fort Myers, filed resolutions late Tuesday to ask voters to amend the state constitution Article IX on education. If approved, the measure would strike the language stating that each county shall constitute a school district. In its place, they propose this wording:

As provided by general or special law, any contiguous area of the state, whether a county or a municipality, may constitute a school district.

They go on to say that each school district will be governed by an elected school board of at least five members. They would delete the word "nonpartisan" from the races, overturning a 1998 vote to remove the parties from school board seats. The lawmakers would go even a step further, proposing that a county or municipality governing body could serve as the school board if approved by general or special law.

But wait. There's more. The lawmakers also would allow for the abolishment of school districts by law.

Brandes told the Gradebook on Wednesday that his goal is to create more flexibility in the governance of the state's school systems. As it stands now, he said, the constitution limits any ability to revamp the model, even if changes are needed.

"Throughout state government, the state can dissolve counties and combine them. The state can dissolve cities and combine them," he said. "But they have no power over school boards without going to the constitution. Maybe it's time to take those out of the constitution and allow the Legislature to have more review of school boards."

Caldwell suggested the proposed new rules would provide more local control to small communities caught up in large countywide bureaucracies. He mentioned small island towns in his home county, as well as the struggling schools of south St. Petersburg highlighted in the Times' Failure Factories series.

"It's clear the Pinellas school district has failed those students," Caldwell told the Gradebook. "It may ultimately be that the best solution can come from the school district. But having the opportunity to present to the city of St. Petersburg the option of running those schools themselves could be an excellent discussion."

At the same time, small counties with small enrollments, such as neighboring Franklin and Liberty, would still have the ability to merge.

The proposal also would pave the way for cities to set up their own school systems. Some cities, such as Pembroke Pines and Cape Coral, already operate charter schools independent of their county school districts. But to open those, the cities needed school board approval. The amendment would eliminate that step.

Both lawmakers noted that the proposed rules would give communities permission to change their districts, but not require any alterations.

Bills to change Florida's school districts are not new. They've often emerged from the larger counties, such as Miami-Dade and Hillsborough, where leaders have wanted to break up systems they viewed as too monolithic.

The idea generated enough concerns in the mid-2000s that OPPAGA, the Legislature's research arm, wrote a report detailing the pros and cons. Though doable, OPPAGA stated, the reality conjures many potential educational, legal and financial challenges that would require careful review.

Brandes said he would welcome such conversation. "Let the issues be vetted," he said, "so we can do what's best for individual communities."

Both lawmakers acknowledged the idea might come under fire as retribution against superintendents and school board members who lately have questioned the validity of the state's testing and accountability model, put in place by the Legislature. They rejected any such criticism that might arise.

"This is the farthest thing from payback," Brandes said. "This is, should voters have the ability, should the state have more flexibility as it's addressing school systems of varying sizes and makeups, to address individual localized needs."

Representatives from the Florida School Boards Association said they did not have any comment on the bills at this time.

[Last modified: Wednesday, November 4, 2015 1:17pm]


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