Proposal aims to alter Florida school districts

Published November 4 2015
Updated November 4 2015

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.

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