School board term limits moves through second House committee

The unanimity of the first stop is gone, though, as members from both parties suggest changes are needed.
Rep. Anthony Sabatini pushes for school board member term limits before the Florida House Oversight, Transparency and Public Management Committee on Feb. 20, 2019. [The Florida Channel]
Rep. Anthony Sabatini pushes for school board member term limits before the Florida House Oversight, Transparency and Public Management Committee on Feb. 20, 2019. [The Florida Channel]
Published Feb. 20, 2019|Updated Feb. 20, 2019

A proposal to let Florida voters decide whether to impose term limits on school board members (HJR 229) cleared another hurdle in the Florida House on Wednesday, but reservations over the details began to emerge.

Unlike its first stop, where the measure won unanimous bipartisan backing, the bill hit some speed bumps in the Oversight, Transparency and Public Management committee. Several Democrats and even a couple of Republicans called for changes before they said they’d vote for it on the House floor.

And, as chairman Rep. Scott Plakon reminded the panel, a resolution requires 72 votes in the House to qualify for the ballot. Right now, the House has 46 Democrats, 71 Republicans and three vacant seats.

Many of the members who raised questions focused their concerns on what they referred to as a “one size fits all” approach to term limits. While they expressed support for the notion of disrupting the political flow with new voices and ideas, they weren’t enthralled with the notion of allowing large counties to make a decision for small ones on the basic issue of how their local government operates.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, filed and then withdrew an amendment that would have changed the proposal to ask voters statewide to allow for local ballots on whether to implement term limits district by district.

She pulled back her proposal after sponsor Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey in the Hills, said he would try to work with her and others to craft a resolution that can address their worries about loss of local control.

“I’m an eight-year guy,” Sabatini said. But "this is a process where I believe every idea should be debated."

His bill as written would limit school board members to two consecutive eight-year terms, beginning with the November 2020 election cycle. It would not be retroactive.

Board members who hit the limit would have to leave for at least one election cycle, and then could run again.

Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, was among several members who suggested that eight years is too short for an elected official to become effective. It takes time to get past the learning curve, he said.

Plasencia suggested 12 years might be a better limit, echoing the debate that hung up a similar bill a year ago. That measure never went to the floor, though, as the Constitution Revision Commission took up the concept and moved to get it on the 2018 ballot.

The Florida Supreme Court removed the term limit proposal from consideration, primarily because of language issues with other portions of the multi-pronged initiative.

Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, by contrast suggested that the eight years would be adequate. He also argued against the notion of catering to individual district desires, stating the statewide policy deserved a statewide resolution.

“We don’t live in the United Counties of Florida, or the United Cities of Florida,” Fischer said.

Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, urged his colleagues to take care not to treat this debate as just another issue up for a legislative vote.

“The most significant thing we should be talking about is, is this something we should be doing in the constitution,” Grant told the committee.

Speakers from the public offered similar talking points from previous incarnations of the discussion.

Supporters pointed to surveys showing broad support for eight-year term limits across party lines. They argued the need to challenge the power of incumbency, and to have policy makers serve a short time and then leave to live under the rules they helped create.

Detractors raised concerns such as whether small communities would be able to find qualified people who wish to serve when an official’s term expires. They noted that the turnover of school board members is regularly around 40 percent every election cycle anyway.

And there was this.

“We have term limits. They’re four years,” said Chris Doolin, who represents small Florida school district. “Then the person runs again.”

The resolution next heads to the House Education Committee. An identical Senate version has not yet been heard.