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  1. The Education Gradebook

Florida school boards fight to reclaim relevance after years of expanding state control

Hillsborough School Board member Doretha Edgecomb
Hillsborough School Board member Doretha Edgecomb
Published Nov. 8, 2014

When the Lee County School Board voted recently to rid its classrooms of state-mandated tests, it backed off the next day after realizing the state could punish it if it stood firm.

Last month, the Pasco County School Board said it wanted to end the first semester of 2015-16 before winter break. But state law forced it to move it into January.

Hernando County board members, fearing lawsuits, bristled at adopting an anti-bullying policy. But they had to give in after learning they would lose $500,000 in state funding if they didn't comply.

Florida school board members are constitutional officers with clearly delineated duties, including independent taxing authority. They're not supposed to be subservient to any other governmental body.

Yet over the past decade or so, school boards have felt the slow erosion of many powers as state lawmakers and the Florida Board of Education have hemmed them in with mandates — often with no money to carry them out. As boards prepare to swear in new members and select new leaders Nov. 18, the conversation can't help but include the question of whether they've lost some of their relevance.

"There is a continuing loss of local control, and that is disappointing," said Hillsborough School Board member Doretha Edgecomb, who's in her 11th year in office. "The government often interferes with what we know is the best thing to do. It does take away our voice, and sometimes our ability to address issues in the way we think is best."

Such concerns have heightened in the years since the Legislature implemented a high-stakes testing and accountability system. Many board members in recent months have been fighting against that system's excesses.

"Once we moved to the accountability paradigm, that started taking power away from the school districts, because our funding was tied to the testing," said Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado, entering her fifth year on the board.

School districts agreed to some of the terms, such as teacher merit pay tied to student test results, when they were to be funded by federal Race to the Top money, Regalado said. But legislators sealed such policies into law even after that money ran out, she said, and school boards were forced into corners they hadn't anticipated.

Districts, for example, had to create hundreds of end-of-course exams needed for the new accountability system. They also were ordered to make a brisk transition to Common Core standards, now referred to as Florida Standards, and quickly pivot to a new testing system that will debut this spring.

"People ask, what do districts do besides what the state tells them to do?" Regalado said.

A key role for school boards, she and others said, has become advocacy in Tallahassee.

"It is our duty to talk to the Legislature," said Pasco School Board chairwoman Alison Crumbley.

Often, the ideas coming out of committees sound good, Crumbley noted. Most are likely well-intended.

But when it comes to implementing them, she said, people in schools can best determine whether those ideas will work. "That is where the school boards come in."

That kind of advocacy has captured the attention of interest groups, which lately have worked to get supporters on local school boards.

Witness the Florida Federation for Children, which avidly backs the state's voucher program for low-income children and this year poured money into campaigns against school board members who challenged it. The federation's efforts helped oust two key leaders of the Florida School Boards Association, which filed a lawsuit seeking to end the vouchers. The federation then backed three school choice advocates who won board seats in Tuesday's election.

"The FSBA is made up of elected local school board members from around the state. It answers to those members and their school boards. They must be held accountable for their efforts to evict 70,000 poor, mainly minority children from their schools," said federation chairman John Kirtley. "Their parents don't have any money to have a voice in these races. We do. We will speak for them."

Large amounts of money also went into heated battles for control of the Hillsborough School Board.

Incumbent April Griffin beat back a challenger who outspent her two-to-one, and who had the support of superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

"There is a lot of local control that is being taken away," said Griffin. "But there also is a lot of control. … We have the responsibility of overseeing the person who is running the school district on a day-to-day basis and holding that person accountable."

School boards also have several other powers that affect children, families and employees, noted Pinellas School Board member Linda Lerner, who recently won her seventh term.

They create school choice programs, set attendance boundaries and negotiate salaries. They determine district policies and procedures, control student busing and run school meal programs. They also help parents connect with school and district officials on issues of concern.

"There are lots of good things going on in Pinellas that we do have control over," Lerner said.

Some state lawmakers have said they support returning some of the powers that past Legislatures have taken away, such as deciding school start dates.

"We should give more latitude to the local school boards," said state Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Republican representing Pasco, Hernando and Sumter counties. "They are the people voted on by the local voters. If they make errors in judgment, they can be held accountable."

He said he has asked for examples of unfunded mandates, so he might help fix or eliminate those.

Such requests have come before, with varying degrees of success.

Patty Hightower, an Escambia School Board member and former FSBA president, said the best course of action is to continue working with lawmakers to put more local control back in boards' hands.

"Blaming gets you nowhere," Hightower said. "You just deal with what you've got."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.