Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Proposal aims to alter Florida school districts

Florida's school districts would face fundamental changes in the way they operate under a newly filed bill by a Pinellas County lawmaker.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has joined Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Fort Myers, to propose a constitutional amendment ending the requirement that all counties have independent school districts.

If approved, the measure would result in:

• Multiple school districts within a single county, including charter school systems run by municipalities.

• School districts that encompass several counties (currently allowed with voter approval).

• Partisan school board elections.

• County or municipal governments also sitting as school boards.

• Legislative authority to abolish school districts.

"Throughout state government, the state can dissolve counties and combine them. The state can dissolve cities and combine them," Brandes 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."

He and Caldwell suggested the added flexibility would allow for more local input and control of school issues, where large bureaucracies might now stand in the way. Caldwell pointed to the five struggling south St. Petersburg elementary schools highlighted in the Tampa Bay Times' "Failure Factories" investigation as an example where change could benefit a community.

"It's clear the Pinellas school district has failed those students," he said. "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."

Initial reaction to the legislation, which in many ways mirrors school governance overhauls in Louisiana and Tennessee, was skepticism.

"It's going to be interesting to see if the public sees it as a continuing effort to undermine public education in this state," said Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

Tracy Damron-Roelle, a Sarasota parent activist, had such concerns. She noted that Florida's current system helps to smooth over financial inequities among communities, something that doesn't always happen in other states with multiple small districts.

"The smallest, poorest districts are given the taxes generated in their districts while the more affluent districts keep their money," she said. "Equitable funding is necessary if the low-income areas are to attempt to succeed."

Florida lawmakers have in the past looked at ways to break up the state's largest school districts, but failed to make changes. Municipalities can set up charter schools, as they have in Cape Coral and Pembroke Pines, but only with authorization from the local school district. Courts overruled an effort to create an independent statewide charter school authorizer.

Pasco County School Board chairman Steve Luikart, a supporter of the status quo, expected this latest effort to face an uphill climb, too.

"Too many people in the large counties don't want to see us getting fragmented. I can't see a county willing to support something that is going to damage its budget," Luikart said. "I don't think they're going to change the Constitution."

Citrus County School Board chairman Thomas Kennedy suggested the lawmakers might be targeting board members and superintendents for their recent questioning of the state's education accountability system.

"With all the actual monumental public educational overhauls that these Florida stakeholders have made abundantly clear that are needed, this was not one of them," Kennedy said. "It is hard to not identify this bill as political payback by these legislators."

Both Brandes and Caldwell rejected that accusation, saying they want to start a conversation about the best way to organize and run school districts. As it stands, Brandes said, the state Constitution allows only one model.

There can be educational, financial, political and legal challenges to making changes, he acknowledged, with reference to a 2008 state report on dividing school districts.

"Let the issues be vetted," Brandes said. "Do what's best for individual communities."

Collier County School Board member Erika Donalds, a member of the more conservative Florida Coalition of School Board Members, welcomed the discussion.

"Municipalities should be able to operate schools, just as they do in other states," Donalds said. "Smaller counties can achieve economies of scale by combining their resources into unified school districts. These adjustments will result in increased local control to those stakeholders who are closest to the students and understand their needs best."

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and head of the state superintendents association, said the Legislature faces more pressing issues than tinkering with school governance — particularly without knowing whether the outcome would be any better.

"The moms and dads sitting in Florida are far more happy with their schools than they are with the Florida Legislature," Montford said, calling public education the backbone of the state. "We should focus on improving the Legislature first."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

More information

• To read the bill HJR 539 / SJR 734, go to flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2016/0734/BillText/Filed/PDF

• To read a 2008 OPPAGA report on the challenges of dividing Florida's county school districts, go to oppaga.state.fl.us/reports/pdf/0826rpt.pdf

Proposal aims to alter Florida school districts 11/04/15 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 4, 2015 6:18pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times 
Casimar Naiboa pleads for help to capture the killer of his son, Anthony Naiboa. Naiboa, 20, was shot and killed near 15th Street N. and E. Frierson Avenue after getting off the wrong bus in Seminole Heights. A peaceful march that began on east New Orleans Avenue was held during the candlelight vigil for the three victims who were killed in the recent shootings in the Seminole Heights neighborhood in Tampa on Sunday, October 22, 2017.
  2. PolitiFact Florida: Rubio has a point about the child tax credit

    State Roundup

    The Trump administration and Senate and House leaders have revealed a framework for tax legislation that proposes tax cuts for business, a reduction in tax brackets, and the elimination of several tax breaks.

    Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, and other members of the committee arrive on Capitol Hill in August. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
  3. 'Empire' star Grace Byers keynotes USF Women in Leadership & Philanthropy luncheon

    Human Interest

    BY AMY SCHERZER

    TAMPA — The first University of South Florida graduate to address the USF's Women in Leadership & Philanthropy supporters, Grace Gealey Byers, class of 2006, centered her speech on her first name, turning it into a verb to share life lessons.

    Grace Byers, University of South Florida Class of 2006, stars on the Fox television show Empire. She delivered the keynote at the USF Women in Leadership and Philanthropy luncheon Friday. Photo by Amy Scherzer
  4. Southeast Seminole Heights holds candlelight vigil for victims' families and each other

    News

    TAMPA — They came together in solidarity in Southeast Seminole Heights, to sustain three families in their grief and to confront fear, at a candlelight vigil held Sunday night in the central Tampa neighborhood.

    A peaceful march that began on east New Orleans Avenue was held during the candlelight vigil for the three victims who were killed in the recent shootings in the Seminole Heights neighborhood in Tampa on Sunday, October 22, 2017.
  5. It's not just Puerto Rico: FEMA bogs down in Florida, Texas too

    HOUSTON — Outside Rachel Roberts' house, a skeleton sits on a chair next to the driveway, a skeleton child on its lap, an empty cup in its hand and a sign at its feet that reads "Waiting on FEMA."

    Ernestino Leon sits among the debris removed from his family’s flood-damaged Bonita Springs home on Oct. 11. He has waited five weeks for FEMA to provide $10,000 to repair the home.