Florida lawmakers renew push for school board term limits

The idea would require a three-fifths vote in each chamber before it could appear on the ballot.
Rep. Anthony Sabatini presents his bill to create school board term limits to the Florida House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee on Jan. 21, 2020.
Rep. Anthony Sabatini presents his bill to create school board term limits to the Florida House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee on Jan. 21, 2020. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published Jan. 21, 2020

Reviving the slogan “Eight is Enough,” some state lawmakers began another effort Tuesday to establish term limits for school board members in Florida’s 67 counties.

Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey in the Hills, sponsored the proposal to force board members from office after eight consecutive years in office for the second year in a row. He contended the concept would have broad appeal in large and small counties, rural and urban ones.

The polls show backing that nears 80 percent regardless of party affiliation, Sabatini told the PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee, the first of three panels to hear the resolution for a constitutional amendment vote.

He stressed that HJR 157 would not enact term limits.

“This is a bill to give the voters the opportunity, if they wish, to vote to enact term limits,” he said.

Support in the hearing room was split fairly evenly for the idea.

Some speakers deemed term limits critically important to getting new people with fresh ideas into school district posts, while ousting some officials who have become embedded in their seats.

“To give us our voice, it’s going to take you guys," St. Johns County activist Kim Kendall told the panel.

Others argued that the decision to limit board member terms should be determined locally, and not imposed by voters in other places. They observed that many school board seats regularly turn over anyway.

“The question here is not about term limits good or term limits bad,” said Rich Templin of the AFL-CIO. Rather, it’s about giving the counties “the chance to decide for themselves.”

In other words, the debate sounded much like the past years’ conversation on the subject. And could foreshadow a similar outcome.

The House moved ahead with Sabatini’s bill a year ago, but the idea foundered in the Senate, where the three-fifths majority was hard to come by. Some senators favored the local vote concept, while others backed longer term limits.

Related: Should Florida school boards have term limits? Lawmakers aren't so sure.

This year, two school board term limit bills are in the Senate, including one by Sen. Joe Gruters to allow for three rather than two consecutive terms.

On the House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee, the measure found some bipartisan support.

Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere, said she backed giving Florida citizens the right to decide. Since the constitution grants school board powers, she said, a statewide referendum would suffice.

“If term limits are good for the president of the United States ... then I think term limits are also good for school board members,” Thompson said.

Rep. Melony Bell, R-Fort Meade, said she is a strong backer of home rule and suggested the bill went against the grain for her. But she suggested that, barring such a move, some board members like one disruptive one in Polk County might never get removed.

So she backed the bill, too.

It wasn’t unanimous, though.

“I cannot support this bill,” said Rep. Delores Hogan-Johnson, D-Fort Pierce, one of a handful of members to oppose the bill. “This is government of the people, by the people and for the people. If we don’t like what’s happening, then we stand up to garner support to make things go our way.”

The bill has two more stops before it would arrive at the full House.