Here’s a legislative proposal that should die a swift death: making school board elections partisan. A Fort Myers lawmaker has proposed a constitutional amendment seeking the change, but the last thing local school boards need is the encroaching influence of national politics. This wrong-headed idea should never make it to the ballot.
Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers, filed HJR 35 for the 2022 legislative session, which starts in January. Florida’s Constitution now says county school board members must be elected in nonpartisan races. Roach’s bill asks the Legislature to put a constitutional amendment before voters making the races partisan. If approved, it would be on the ballot next November.
As with many of Tallahassee’s attempts to meddle in local government, this is a solution in search of a problem. School boards, like city councils and county commissions, are the government bodies closest to the people. They tend to be diverse panels with some members bringing long educational backgrounds and others lending business acumen and professional expertise to the policy decisions of local school districts. Party affiliation is — and should remain — a nonissue.
School boards approve district budgets and set policy on matters like curriculum, busing and school zone boundaries. Much of what they do is important but arcane. On the other hand, some school board decisions — like the current conflict over mask mandates — arouse heated debate and require difficult votes by board members. It’s absurd to suggest that the influence of party politics would make those debates more civil, and that the outcomes would better serve Florida’s students.
What’s more, partisan school board elections would disenfranchise many voters thanks to Florida’s closed primary system. Voters registered with one party or the other would only get to vote for candidates from their own party in school board primaries. Voters with no party affiliation would be shut out of primaries entirely. The system is already vulnerable to gaming when a write-in candidate gets into a race, closing the primary and disenfranchising voters — even though write-ins have zero chance of winning elections.
Four years ago, when St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman was in a heated battle for re-election to the nonpartisan post, he frequently reminded voters he was a Democrat and his opponent, former Mayor Rick Baker, was a Republican — and by implication, a supporter of then-President Donald Trump. During this year’s St. Petersburg mayoral race, candidate Darden Rice suggested opponent Ken Welch was endorsed by Trump backers and sent a mailer depicting his picture next to the former president’s. Such partisan shenanigans already find their way into local races — there’s no need to fling the door wide open to more.
School board races in Florida are nonpartisan and should remain that way. A proposal to change the state constitution and make them partisan would polarize local boards and disenfranchise countless voters who are becoming more disillusioned with the two-party system. Florida school boards already face perennially tight budgets, unending mandates from Tallahassee, closing the achievement gap between white students and students of color and many other challenges. Let’s not make it harder for them to work together to find solutions.
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