Florida’s latest debate over term limits: Do school boards need fresh ideas or experience?

Published January 31 2018
Updated February 2 2018

First elected in 1990, Linda Lerner is among Florida’s longest-serving current school board members.

In Pinellas County, she holds the record.

"Obviously, I thought I had something very positive to offer," Lerner says of her decision to keep running. "I always had an opponent. So, the voters agreed with me."

If certain state leaders have their way, a board tenure like hers would no longer be possible.

The Florida House, Senate and Constitution Revision Commission each have proposals to impose term limits on school board members similar to those placed on the governor, lawmakers and some other officials, including State Board of Education members.

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The details differ in places. The Senate would hold board members to three terms and not count past service, for instance, while the CRC would set a two-term limit and count time served after 2015.

But the goal remains the same: To stop people from making a career of the school board.

"I believe in citizen policy makers at every level of government," said Erika Donalds, a first-term Collier County School Board member who is spearheading the idea as a Constitution Revision Commission member. "People ought to come out of private life, use their experience in private life to serve the public for a limited period of time, and then go back into private life."

She and others argue that, although experience is valuable, so too are new perspectives that often get lost when someone spends too much time "inside the bubble" of government.

"Sometimes fresh ideas are good, especially in an area like education, where we need to always be making positive change so the students continue to grow," said Rep. Jake Raburn, R-Lithia, the House sponsor.

But many board members, and their supporters, contend there’s more to the term limits push than a desire for new ideas.

"The reason they’re doing it is to create turmoil and turnover," said Andrea Messina, the Florida School Boards Association executive director, who noted lawmakers often complain that their own terms are limited.

She sees the move as payback for boards’ vocal challenges to lawmakers’ recent actions to reallocate local tax revenue and establish charter schools outside school board authority. About dozen school boards have sued the Legislature over those and other measures in last year’s big education bill.

"I think some of the lawmakers, especially some of the key leaders, want to have more control of school districts and don’t want to have the knowledge on school boards," Lerner said.

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Raburn said that’s "absolutely not true."

Lerner and others have been around long enough, though, to remember other times when a similar push and pull appeared to be at play.

Like in 2002, when the House tried to eliminate board salaries in a session-ending budget bill. House leaders argued the change would attract better candidates. Board members said they saw it as retribution for opposing the House’s education budget.

Or in 2011, when the Senate sought to kill board member pay. The sponsors suggested the state needed to save the $1.5 million. Board members wondered whether the recommendation was tied to their fight against mounting unfunded mandates.

Senate sponsor Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, said his term limits resolution was about making it easier for residents to run and serve, nothing else. School boards are one of the last remaining positions in Florida without restrictions on length of service.

"I just think it’s good for the public." Steube said. "It is very hard to get somebody out of office who is an incumbent, regardless of what the office is."

In the House, where lawmakers are contemplating a referendum on eight-year limits for board terms, members admitted to being conflicted over the idea.

"We often discuss among ourselves what term limits have created," said Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, suggesting local communities should decide whether they want to set limits.

That is how several county commissions, including Hillsborough and Miami-Dade, operate. A handful of states, including Indiana and Texas, allow school boards to set their own term limits.

Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said she would be more apt to back term limits of 12 years, with no retroactivity — similar to the measure moving through the Senate, and what Louisiana voters adopted in 2012.

"I can tell you, experience means a lot and the learning curve is very significant," Harrell said. "Perhaps eight is not enough to learn the insights and gain perspective."

The Senate arrived at its 12-year proposal as a compromise. Democrats on the bill’s first committee stop refused to back it with two terms, and without them the bill would have died.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican, said she wanted the bill to continue forward. She said she received more than 300 emails favoring the idea, with messages like "Term limits will regularly sever the relationships that grow between special interests and incumbents."

The compromise didn’t go over well with term limit advocates such as Nick Tomboulides, the Florida-based executive director of U.S. Term Limits. His group has lobbied lawmakers for years about term limiting not just school boards, but also Congress.

Tomboulides said the effort was not about silencing board member voices, but about ending entrenched political office holders. Incumbency looms large in elections, he noted, and even Florida school board races are attracting big money, making it harder for outsiders to compete.

"Twelve years on a school board is a very long time," Tomboulides said, asking, "If someone can’t get the job done in eight years, what makes you think they can do it in 12?"

With so much momentum behind the concept, even the biggest detractors expect some form of the question will appear on the November ballot.

Then voters will have to decide whether "eight (or 12) is enough," or if every election is the opportunity to limit a board member’s term. A constitutional amendment would need 60 percent support from voters to pass.

Tallahassee bureau reporter Emily Mahoney contributed to this report. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.