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Should Florida voters limit school board terms to 8 years?

The House could hold its final vote to place the question on the 2020 ballot as early as today.
State Rep. Anthony Sabatini fields questions on the House floor on Feb. 19, 2020, about his proposal to ask voters to limit school board member terms. [The Florida Channel]

UPDATE 2:10 p.m.: The term limits legislation received the three-fifths majority needed to place the question on the 2020 ballot. The Senate still must concur.

ORIGINAL POST: The push to limit Florida school board members’ terms to eight consecutive years could reach a significant milestone Thursday afternoon.

After three years of talking, the Florida House could approve a resolution (HJR 157) placing the idea before voters on the 2020 ballot. Adoption with the required three-fifths majority is widely expected.

So much so, in fact, that the Florida School Boards Association, which actively fought the idea a year ago, has made barely a peep as the measure moved through House committees and onto the floor. Its leaders’ eyes are focused more intently on the Senate, where a companion bill has advanced along narrow party lines and now sits in the Rules Committee.

If things continue to play out along partisan lines in the Senate, that could mean doom once again for the concept that supporters says polls as wildly popular in communities big and small, rural and urban, blue and red. Democrats hold 17 of 40 seats in the upper chamber, one more than the two-fifths needed to stop a proposed constitutional amendment like this one.

School board term limits died in the Senate in 2019, forcing the House to abandon its effort before ever bringing the idea to the floor for a vote. The year before, both chambers dropped the proposal as they watched the Constitutional Revision Commission attempt to put it on the 2018 ballot.

The state Supreme Court struck down the question, calling the language defective.

This more narrowly tailored attempt would do just one thing: Bar any school board member who has served eight consecutive years from seeking another term in office without stepping away for at least one election cycle.

It would take effect only for terms won after the election, meaning long-time officeholders like Pinellas County’s Carol Cook, who first won in 2000, would get to serve eight more years before it would kick in.

State Rep. Anthony Sabatini, the Lake County Republican steering the resolution through the House, gave a preview Wednesday of the campaign for the concept as he introduced the measure on the House floor and then fielded questions.

“Term limits have benefited every institution of which they have been a part,” he said, including the Legislature among those. “We should not have anyone stagnating in any office for decade after decade.”

A handful of members peppered him with concerns and challenges. After several committee meetings over a couple of years, he had answers at the ready.

Rep. Tina Polsky, a Palm Beach County Democrat, asked about the average tenure of current board members across the state. It was 10 years, Sabatini acknowledged, just slightly more than the eight the measure advocates.

“But a very large minority sometimes stays decades,” he added, suggesting that 30 to 50 years is too long.

What’s inherently wrong with the voters deciding they want to keep someone in place who is doing a good job, Polsky countered. Voters stop paying attention when one person sticks around that long, Sabatini suggested, as competition barely surfaces and important debates don’t take place.

So why not ask to limit county commissioners and other elected officers, too, Polsky wondered. Counties can call such elections themselves for those seats, Sabatini suggested, but that’s not the case for school board members.

The constitution sets forth the school board members’ role in Article 8, Section 4, he noted, and so it would take a constitutional amendment to change that. Rep. Tracie Davis, a Duval County Democrat, noted that her county has term limits for board members through its local charter.

That could be voided if challenged in court, Sabatini argued.

And so the discussion went.

Why school boards, Hillsborough County Democrat Rep. Susan Valdes pressed on. Because they collectively control a $20 billion chunk of the state’s budget, Sabatini said.

Not really, said Valdes, who served 14 years on the Hillsborough School Board. The Legislature specifies the uses of much of the money, she said, and district superintendents are charged in law to propose and manage district spending.

Then consider how important it is to have fresh eyes overseeing the administration, Sabatini responded.

“Many times, (board members) become insiders by residing on the board decade after decade,” he said.

Valdes began to push back, until reminded that the official debate would be held during the third reading of the bill. That’s set for this afternoon. The House convenes at 1:30 p.m.

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