Skeptics are wrong; Florida Republicans do have a mission for the public school system. It’s to serve as political pawns and a cultural battleground for the 2022 elections. Take the latest cheap shot from state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who doubles as chairman of the Florida Republican Party.
Last week, the Senate Education Committee, which Gruters chairs, approved a bill Gruters sponsored that would slash the pay of the vast majority of elected school board members in Florida. Under Senate Bill 1300, school board salaries would be equal to those of Florida legislators, or $29,697 currently, reducing the pay of board members in 49 of Florida’s 67 school districts. Members locally elected to serve the state’s five largest school districts — including Miami-Dade, Broward and Hillsborough — could see their salaries cut by roughly $17,000 a year under the proposal.
Gruters offered no real justification for slashing school board members’ pay, offering only that the new salaries would align with what state legislators make. Gruters characterized his proposal as “fair,” acknowledging that board members are entitled to compensation. “But the question,” he mused, “is how much should they be paid?”
That’s a trick question, of course, because the answer depends on who you ask. But two things are abundantly clear. First, there’s zero connection between what school board members and legislators make. They are elected to different offices under different terms to deal with widely varying policy matters. It’s like saying the zoo should feed the rhinos and alligators the same meal. In many Florida counties, school districts are the largest employers; they run the largest bus systems, the largest food operations, the largest enterprises on public land. And school board members cast their votes in the communities where they live and work, unlike many state legislators, who conduct business hundreds of miles from their constituents, and who often are expected to cast a party-line vote.
What’s more revealing about the effort to cut school board pay, though, is the depth Republican legislators will go to work in sync with Gov. Ron DeSantis to paint the public schools as a problem this election year. Is it any wonder this legislation comes only months after the state Department of Education withheld the salary of school board members in several counties after they defied the governor by imposing a mask mandate to control the spread of COVID-19? Gruters is also sponsoring legislation that would ask voters to consider making school board races partisan; that bill has been approved by one of its three assigned committees.
Cutting school board pay could make it harder to find candidates who are not independently wealthy to seek this important elected office. While money is not a motivator for many, it could be enough to dissuade younger and working adults from taking on this commitment of effort and time. Whatever the outcome, Republican leaders have already succeeded by making school board pay another wedge issue — like masks, prayer, gender identity and teaching about race — that promise to entangle public education in the politics of the 2022 elections. If only the legislature was as interested in what was happening in the classroom.
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