In most Florida counties, school districts are the biggest employers, running multimillion- and even billion-dollar budgets while controlling issues that impact families and children daily.
Yet their profile has remained low, with many parents and taxpayers taking the system for granted.
The pandemic is changing all that.
Sitting on the Sarasota County School Board since 2014, Bridget Ziegler often has found herself fighting a lone conservative battle against some of the policies and initiatives she sought election to challenge.
”I get how hard it can be to be a working parent,” the mom of three and corporate risk consultant said.
It’s easy to send your kids to school and not get involved beyond classroom issues. But perhaps no more, she suggested.
The past year opened eyes, Ziegler said. Having taken more active roles in their children’s schooling, parents of all political persuasions started paying more attention, she noted, and in many cases got frustrated.
They started watching board meetings online. And when the meetings reopened, some began attending to speak out. Many took issue with boards’ decisions on resuming in-person classes, mandating masks and offering lessons that might have gone unnoticed before.
“I believe you’re going to see parents show up in waves at the ballot box,” where, in a typical year, large numbers of voters pass over school board races, Ziegler said. “And I think you’re going to see lots of people in their 30s or so run for office.”
It’s not a stretch.
Pinellas County residents angry about their district’s mask requirements, which didn’t end until after the school year, angrily told their board, “We’re coming for your seats.”
Some Pasco County parents brought their board a similar message, continuing to attend meetings after the panel ended its mask rule. They turned their attention to other issues instead, poring over the board’s agenda to raise concerns about pending purchases and other items that raised their hackles.
”We’re not going anywhere,” parent Cathy Julian said after a recent board meeting, mentioning plans to pull together a slate of candidates for the 2022 election cycle.
These challenges have not always been delivered with a politician’s polish. Rather, they’ve conveyed raw emotion of parents and activists fighting the status quo.
Pinellas board vice chairperson Eileen Long has noticed.
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”Right now, the far left and far right are really starting to show their colors,” said Long, who recently sat through seven hours of anti-mask public comment over the course of two School Board meetings. “Let them come. We’ll be using the videos of how they’re screaming and yelling and f-bombing us.”
But the most important thing is the parental interest, said Tina Descovich, a former Brevard County board member who formed Moms for Liberty with Ziegler. School boards are a “vital part of our government,” she said, but they’ve “been neglected.”
”It’s going to be good having more eyes on what school districts are doing and more people aware of the powers school boards have,” Descovich said.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has his eye on the school board prize, too.
In a Fox News interview with Dan Bongino last weekend, DeSantis outlined his plan to push for school board members friendly to his philosophies on topics including student virus vaccinations and the history of U.S. race relations.
”These local elections matter,” the governor said. “We’re going to get the Florida political apparatus involved so we can make sure there’s not a single school board Republican who ever indulges in critical race theory.”
Florida’s school board seats have been nonpartisan since voters amended the state Constitution in 1998. Efforts to undo that measure have fallen flat. That’s not to say that politics haven’t played a part in board elections.
After the Florida School Boards Association sued to stop the state’s voucher expansion in 2014, a private group supported by school choice advocate John Kirtley funneled money into races across the state, then celebrated the outcomes.
This time around, though, folks like Ziegler and Descovich sense a difference. The activity appears more grassroots than a bunch of interest groups vying for power, they said.
Parents increasingly are becoming fed up with what they’re seeing, they said, and when they try to speak out, they sometimes feel like they’re met with disdain — or at the very least a lack of attention.
”It’s an exciting time,” Ziegler said. “Now that the veil has been lifted, there’s no turning back.”
A version of this story first appeared in the weekly Gradebook newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter at www.tampabay.com/newsletters/gradebook/ to receive it in your email on Thursday mornings.