Debate over school board term limits to return to Florida Legislature

The idea was proposed in 2018 but never made its way to the voters.
Hillsborough County School Board (Twitter).
Hillsborough County School Board (Twitter).
Published January 10
Updated January 10

Florida voters who want to limit the length of time school board members serve in office might get their chance in 2020.

The idea, which appeared to have traction last fall in private polls, is headed back to the Legislature for another round of consideration. Lawmakers discussed the concept in 2018, but dumped their efforts when it became clear the Constitution Revision Commission planned to tackle the matter.

CRC members intended to get the issue on the November ballot. But they failed, as the Florida Supreme Court killed the three-pronged initiative because of other aspects within the proposal.

Related coverage: Florida Supreme Court strikes Amendment 8 from November ballot 

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey in the Hills, have resurrected the idea with legislation that would let term limits stand on their own before voters.

HJR 229 / SJR 274 would ask voters to limit board members to two consecutive four-year terms. In a nod to concerns that such a proposal could at its outset remove sitting elected officials from their seats, the measures would not count any service completed before Nov. 3, 2020, making it forward-looking only.

Baxley said he likes the idea because it forces a break in service, allowing for new people with different ideas to find a way into office.

"It's anti-incumbency," said Baxley, who chairs the Senate ethics and elections committee. "You can't just sit there and hold on to incumbent power."

Proponents of term limits have contended such restrictions would prevent people from turning their representative service into a career. They also suggest term limits would eliminate the power of incumbency that helps sitting board members in their pursuit of reelection, in turn creating a more level playing field for newcomers.

Opponents have argued that voters should have the right to choose whomever they wish to represent them, and that artificial limitations can force out strong public servants.

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

Baxley acknowledged the concept has some downsides. There is great value to experience and institutional knowledge, he said.

He also suggested that there might be a better length of service than eight years  — perhaps 12, he said, so people don't have to leave just as they get to really understand how the system operates. But people are accustomed to "eight is enough," though, he said, and that's what has support.

"At the end of the day, it's clear there are benefits," Baxley said. "It's not your career. It's your service."

Election results from 2018 indicate that some school board turnover occurred naturally.

Veteran members in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, for instance, lost their reelection bids despite the perceived advantages of holding office. Statewide, 25 sitting board members lost their seats.

Another 53 did not seek another term.

Still, 73 incumbents were reelected without opposition, as were 53 newcomers.

If approved, school board would become the only local-level position to have state-imposed term limits.

Baxley said school board term limits are a "good place to start," and other offices could come afterward. "It's something that it's wise to be incremental with."

Florida does limit the service of the governor, attorney general, agriculture commissioner, senators, House representatives and State Board of Education members, among others.

This post has been updated with comments from Sen. Dennis Baxley.

Advertisement