Should Florida school boards have term limits? Lawmakers aren’t so sure.

After a seemingly strong start, a bill that would limit school board members to two consecutive terms is stalled with two weeks to go.
The Hillsborough County School Board meets last summer as the 2018-19 academic year begins. A bill in the Florida Legislature would limit board members to two consecutive terms, but its future seems uncertain with little time left in the 2019 legislative session. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
The Hillsborough County School Board meets last summer as the 2018-19 academic year begins. A bill in the Florida Legislature would limit board members to two consecutive terms, but its future seems uncertain with little time left in the 2019 legislative session. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published April 19

It seemed like everything was on track for next year: Floridians would finally get to vote on whether school board members should be limited to two consecutive terms.

A proposal to put the question on the general election ballot was sailing through the state House with some bipartisan support. An identical bill made it through two Senate committees with more narrow backing, but favorable results nonetheless.

Less than a year after the Florida Supreme Court removed the idea from the 2018 ballot, backers felt certain that the push was on its way. They still do.

But on Wednesday, the initiative hit a wall.

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While the bill didn’t die, it became clear to sponsor Sen. Dennis Baxley during the Senate Rules Committee debate that, without changes, SJR 274 was unlikely to advance to the finish line.

A constitutional amendment requires a three-fifths majority in both the Senate and House to go before voters. And growing skepticism among Baxley’s colleagues hinted that reaching the magic number of 24 senators might not occur.

Local officials were lobbying senators, who began signaling hesitation to approve any measure that might hurt fellow elected leaders, Baxley said.

“Incumbents are unlikely to vote for anything against incumbency,” he said. “Local counties wanted local options.”

Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican, perked up at the idea from AFL-CIO lobbyist Rich Templin that perhaps each county should decide for itself, rather than be bound by a statewide vote.

Several Democrats indicated their disdain for the notion of removing voters’ ability to pick among whoever wants to run for board.

“We spent time on the floor talking about local decisions, let the people decide,” said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat, referring to a heated discussion earlier that day over whether to allow teachers to carry guns in schools. “Let’s let people decide who will represent them.”

The doubts had started showing before the Rules Committee convened.

Sen. Keith Perry, a Gainesville Republican also listed as bill co-sponsor, said during Education Committee debate on the measure that his concerns continued to grow as he spoke to more people.

“I was one of those who voted years ago with the ‘Eight is Enough’ group,” Perry later explained, referring to the 1992 legislative term limits campaign. “Once you get involved in the political world, you learn how much you don’t know.”

It takes time, whether in the Legislature or on a school board or some other elected body, to learn the issues and the ways to get things done, he said.

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“I’m thinking 12 years would be more appropriate,” Perry said, adding he also worried about the ability of smaller counties to find enough willing candidates.

Backers touted St. Petersburg Democrat Darryl Rouson as being on their side, suggesting his vote might help carry the resolution to passage.

But Rouson, also listed as a co-sponsor, told the Tampa Bay Times that just because his name appeared on the bill didn’t mean he was locked into voting for it.

“I’m studying the bill and I have not fully decided where I am going to land on it,” he said. “It’s an important bill and it needs to be discussed.”

One of supporters’ key talking points centers on the troubles challengers face against sitting board members.

“It’s easier to beat a casino than beat an incumbent,” said Nick Tomboulides, the Brevard County-based leader of U.S. Term Limits.

Nicole Carr found that to be the case as she challenged veteran Pinellas County School Board member Peggy O’Shea in 2018.

O’Shea had a history of relationships with community members and business leaders, Carr said, as well as the aura of being involved and knowledgeable about school district matters. She had name recognition, and won prominent endorsements.

“You carry weight as being an incumbent,” Carr said.

But an outsider can win. She did it, as did new Pinellas board colleague Lisa Cane and nearby Hillsborough board member Stacy Hahn.

Despite the disadvantages, Carr said, sometimes there are no options other than to take on an incumbent.

“The board really needed some fresh ideas,” she said. “That’s what made me run.”

Still, Carr said, she does not support the idea of a statewide term limit vote, though she does like the underlying concept.

“If it’s local government, it should be up to the local voters,” she said.

Allen Altman recently won his fourth term on the Pasco County School Board, where members serving 16 years or longer were the norm.

He said he did not oppose term limits, either.

“But I think eight years is too short a period of time, and I include the Legislature in that,” Altman said. “What we have seen as a result of term limits in the Legislature is a staff and lobbyist driven process.”

He suggested it can take a full term to grasp state funding rules. Many issues, often outside a board’s control, can make it difficult to accomplish goals even over eight years, he added.

“In my case, it’s a technical high school for east and central Pasco,” Altman said, mentioning a project he presented in 2006 that is just now becoming reality.

As for the incumbent advantage, Altman said there might be one. But not much.

“I think any pollster or poll consultant would tell you that name recognition or benefits of being a school board member are extremely low,” he said.

He and others remembered all too well retired longtime Pasco board member Marge Whaley, who used to joke that she thought she was well known after appearing on ballots and in the news over many years — until she got quizzical looks from people as she introduced herself.

Still, the press continues for school board term limits.

Baxley said he would seek compromises to propel the bill forward, as the legislative session enters its final two weeks.

“We may come up with an amendment they like,” he said. “But we’re running out of committee meetings.”

And whether the House would agree to changes is another question mark.

Baxley speculated that, if the Legislature ultimately does not act, Florida voters will.

Tomboulides, of U.S. Term Limits, said his group still has faith that lawmakers “come to their senses and listen to the voters.”

But if not, he added, the group and others will pursue term limits through other means. And that effort could be even more exacting than the proposal now under consideration, said Erika Donalds, a cofounder of School Choice Movement who pushed the ill-fated Constitution Revision Commission proposal.

“A citizen-led initiative could be retroactive, for a lifetime and for all constitutional offices,” Donalds said via email. ““The goal here is ensuring school boards have the fresh faces and ideas students, teachers and parents deserve. We need to let the people vote.”

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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By the numbers

Supporters say term limits for Florida school boards would help bring in candidates with new ideas, because right now it’s too difficult for them to overcome the power of incumbents. Does that argument hold up? Here’s a numerical look at the last election in 2018:

212

School board seats up for consideration across the state.

73

Incumbents elected without opposition.

77

New board members elected.

62

Incumbents who defeated challengers.

53

Incumbents who didn’t seek another term, opening the way for new board members.

25

Incumbents who lost in the primary or general election.

Source: Florida School Boards Association.

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