Politics

Florida Legislature intervenes to boost conservative school board members

Lakeland Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel, left — shown speaking to Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, during a floor debate in March — sponsored legislation in the 2016 session that benefits the Florida Coalition of School Board Members. Part of her original bill was added to a massive school choice bill that is pending Gov. Rick Scott’s signature. It gives school board members statewide freedom to choose which membership association they want representing them.
Lakeland Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel, left — shown speaking to Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, during a floor debate in March — sponsored legislation in the 2016 session that benefits the Florida Coalition of School Board Members. Part of her original bill was added to a massive school choice bill that is pending Gov. Rick Scott’s signature. It gives school board members statewide freedom to choose which membership association they want representing them. TAMPA BAY TIMES

Through both policy and taxpayer funding during the 2016 session, the Republican-led Legislature subtly gave a leg up to politically conservative school board members in Florida who want greater influence on statewide education policy.

The Legislature’s actions show how partisan politics continue to influence education in the Sunshine State, but party ideology is not supposed to infiltrate local school boards.

The Constitution requires school boards to be nonpartisan, so critics are especially concerned by Republican leaders’ eagerness to intervene — and to diminish the influence of those with viewpoints contrary to their own.

This session, Republican lawmakers first sought to retaliate — through a proposed law — against the Florida School Boards Association because it previously challenged a Legislature-approved, voucher-like program in court.

Republicans backed off that in the face of criticism in the final days of session, but they still passed — as part of the massive “school choice” bill — a provision that will let the 356 individual school board members in the state direct their dues to a new advocacy organization that seeks to rival the FSBA.

The conservative-leaning Florida Coalition of School Board Members was founded last year, as an alternative to the Florida School Boards Association.

While offering more freedom and flexibility to school board members, the measure could potentially de-fund the well-established FSBA in favor of boosting revenue for the 15-month-old Florida Coalition of School Board Members, which champions conservative values in line with legislative leaders’ priorities.

Not signed yet

Republican Gov. Rick Scott has yet to sign the school choice bill — he has until April 14 — but in the interim, the coalition will definitely receive an influx of $200,000 in state funding, starting July 1, thanks to a line-item secured in the 2016-17 budget. The money will help the coalition set up virtual training for school board members, a version of which the FSBA already offers but wants to expand.

Critics question the appropriateness of the Legislature’s actions.

“The school boards are independent, locally elected political bodies and they deserve — like other local governments — respect and deference from the Legislature,” said Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, the ranking Democrat on the House’s K-12 policy committee.

Republican lawmakers and members of the coalition deny partisan undertones. However, many of the coalition’s leaders are active in GOP political circles or are running for higher office as Republicans.

Among them: Rebecca Negron — a Martin County School Board member, a Republican candidate for Florida’s 18th Congressional District and the wife of incoming Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. Rebecca Negron was a founding member of the coalition and elevated to its board of directors in February.

“I don’t agree there’s a partisan aspect to it. I think there are certainly two sides of education policy,” said Erika Donalds, another founding member of the coalition, its current president and a Collier County School Board member. “One of our core values is making solution-oriented partnerships, and that means being more of a help on the side of the Legislature and the direction that the Legislature is going.”

Like Republican legislative leaders, the coalition supports school choice policies that Democratic lawmakers and the FSBA have scrutinized.

Long history

The non-profit FSBA has been around for more than 80 years, providing training and assistance to school board members and districts and representing school boards’ policy goals in Tallahassee. According to its 2014 tax return, the association employed 31 people and oversaw a budget of $1.9 million. Almost $1 million of that was revenue from membership dues that county school boards pay with taxpayer dollars.

Of the state’s 67 county school boards, the FSBA represents 65; Indian River County withdrew a couple years ago and Nassau County hasn’t participated for many years.

“We represent all boards in a non-partisan way — all boards, not just a select group of people who believe one thing,” executive director Andrea Messina said.

Meanwhile, the non-profit coalition was founded in January 2015, a few months after several conservative-minded individuals won seats on school boards, such as in Indian River County.

There’s always going to be a minority, and you can’t advocate for the minority if you are a large organization.

Erika Donalds, president of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members

They met at one of FSBA’s biannual conferences and opted to form their own organization because they didn’t feel the FSBA represented their shared values, Donalds said.

“There’s always going to be a minority, and you can’t advocate for the minority if you are a large organization,” she said.

The impetus was the FSBA’s previous participation in a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship — a voucher-like program that helps poor children attend private school by giving tax breaks to businesses.

The FSBA joined in the lawsuit in summer 2014 but later withdrew in 2015, when it decided not to appeal a judge’s ruling. (The Florida Education Association is still pursuing the lawsuit, which goes before a state appeals court in May.)

Absent its own revenue base, Donalds said the coalition has gotten off the ground thanks to donations from its founding members, who paid for initial costs as well as $1,950 each for dues.

They sought the Legislature’s intervention because school board members were unsuccessful in individually withdrawing from the FSBA and in redirecting their taxpayer-funded association dues to the coalition, Donalds said.

Represents boards, not individuals

The FSBA represents county school boards — not school board members —which is why its dues structure and membership aren’t based on individual people. County school boards vote on whether to join the FSBA, and majority rules.

But coalition members, with support from Republican lawmakers, argued they should have the choice of what professional association represents them. Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, took up the coalition’s cause this session, sponsoring a bill that would let school board members direct their dues to whatever organization they wished.

The bill also targeted the FSBA for participating in the tax-credit scholarship lawsuit. It would have barred the FSBA from using taxpayer dollars — i.e. the dues its members pay — from suing the state in the future.

We represent all boards in a non-partisan way — all boards, not just a select group of people who believe one thing.

Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association

The standalone legislation stalled amid opposition in the final days of session. Instead, the provision giving flexibility with membership dues was tacked on to the final school choice bill, while Stargel dropped the aspect dictating how the FSBA can spend its money.

“There are a number of dangerous precedents that are being set with this little, tiny piece of language in a mammoth bill,” Messina said. “We believe that it’s overstep on the part of the Legislature to target a single, non-profit corporation.”

Stargel said she “wasn’t specifically targeting school boards,” but she told her fellow lawmakers more than once during session that her proposal would affect only the FSBA.

“There’s been a lot of movement across the state to change the direction of the school boards,” she said. “What we’ve done in this bill should allow them to have more power.”

Separately from the pending policy change, the $200,000 in funding to craft a training curriculum should also boost the coalition’s reach.

Although FSBA offers its own training, Donalds said the coalition’s programming will be unique. She said coalition members — of which the coalition says there are more than 50 — will get the training for free. FSBA charges for some of its webinars to cover costs, Messina said.

Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, the House education budget chairman, requested the appropriation on behalf of the coalition in early February.

During conference talks, the House initially recommended $50,000 for the coalition before simultaneously scrubbing that request and swapping it out for the full $200,000 on a list of special projects that surfaced after closed-door negotiations on the last night. Florida Tax Watch said that lack of scrutiny should have merited a line-item veto from Scott.

The FSBA represents 65 of Florida’s 67 counties, which include 346 individual school board members statewide

Geller, the Aventura Democrat, briefly questioned the appropriation during budget debate on the House floor — which was the only public discussion lawmakers gave it.

“Has the group been vetted? Do we know its track record? I certainly don’t know the answers,” Geller told the Herald/Times last month. “$200,000 is a lot of money. It could do some real good to things that I know need more funds.”

Fresen called it a “one-time, non-recurring source of money for upstart [professional development] for this group.” He did not answer questions sent via text message about the transparency of the request, the need for the state to provide the funding or why the state was funding an organization with little history.

Donalds said that while the organization itself is new, its founding members have credentials worth trusting.

Meanwhile, the FSBA is exploring the ramifications of potentially losing revenue from membership dues, should Scott sign the school choice bill. Messina said it could affect how the FSBA offers outreach services to school districts and board members in the future.

Regardless of the legislative actions, though, the FSBA is making bylaw changes in response to the frustrations of conservative school board members to ensure they have more input in decisions, she said.

And, Messina said, the FSBA’s withdrawal from the tax-credit scholarship lawsuit last summer shows the impact members have had and proves they are being heard.

“I would argue that that shows we’re definitely listening to individual members,” she said.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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