School board term limits proposal advances in Florida House

The measure won broad bipartisan support, though some called for changes to the details.
Florida Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Lake County Republican, presents his bill to hold a statewide referendum on school board term limits to the House PreK-12 Quality subcommittee on Feb. 6, 2019. [The Florida Channel]
Florida Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Lake County Republican, presents his bill to hold a statewide referendum on school board term limits to the House PreK-12 Quality subcommittee on Feb. 6, 2019. [The Florida Channel]
Published Feb. 6, 2019|Updated Feb. 6, 2019

Citing the importance of eliminating the “incumbency advantage” and the need to generate fresh ideas, members of the Florida House PreK-12 Quality subcommittee unanimously backed a resolution (HJR 229) Wednesday to ask voters to approve term limits for school board members.

Even with their support, several committee members signaled a desire to see some changes to the proposal for two four-year terms. Among their primary thoughts were increasing the maximum consecutive time of service to 12 years, and creating an option for counties to hold their own term limit referendums rather than forcing the issue statewide.

Rep. Jennifer Webb, the committee’s ranking Democrat from Pinellas County, said she did not want to push through a measure that might be “creating a disservice to smaller counties.”

Webb also noted that peer reviewed research indicates people reach their peak performance in any position after about 10 years, so 12 years might be a better limit to allow board members to get acclimated to the job and do it best. In 2018, Senate support for board term limits depended on a compromise for 12 years, before the Legislature dropped the concept so the Constitution Revision Commission could take it up.

The Florida Supreme Court killed the CRC proposal, which was tied to two other measures. That paved the way for a return to the discussion this session.

Bill sponsor Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Lake County Republican, said he welcomed debate about the topic. But he strongly hinted that he did not expect many changes, noting that a statewide poll from about a year ago indicated 85 percent support across party lines for 8-year school board term limits.

“Folks, I’m not sure if Florida’s beaches are going to poll that high,” Sabatini said. "Eight-year term limits are the will of the people."

He and others noted that many other elected officials, including the governor, Cabinet members and lawmakers, face two-term restrictions.

“Eight is enough,” said Austin Sekel of U.S. Term Limits, during public comments.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, asked why local communities cannot simply impose limits themselves if they want. Sabatini noted that while the state constitution allows for local referendums on whether to elect or appoint school superintendents, it does not include similar language for school board member term limits.

Counties with local charters can establish such terms, he added, but most do not have a charter and the process is lengthy.

“The best and fastest avenue, listening to the will of the people, is just to make a constitutional amendment,” Sabatini said.

Webb wondered why the Legislature would want to target only school boards, and not other elected officials. Sabatini said it seemed better to take one step at a time, and others might follow.

A string of speakers offered views to the committee. Most favored some sort of limits, but some pressed for local control of the position.

Chris Doolin, who represents rural school districts, suggested amending the bill so it would ask voters to create a constitutional provision for school districts to hold their own votes on term limits, if they want.

Rich Templin of the AFL-CIO agreed.

“This is a one size fits all, where my community regardless of how we vote in Leon County will be dictated to by much larger counties that are different than ours,” Templin said. “Provide flexibility in the constitution to let communities decide.”

In 2018, 18 percent of incumbent school board members did not seek reelection. Another 9 percent lost their bids for another term, while 25 percent were reelected without opposition.

An identical version of the resolution has been filed in the Senate. It has been referred to three committees but has not yet been heard.

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