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Proposal may lead to term limits for members of Florida school boards

School board members would be limited to eight years in office, and school superintendents would be appointed in all 67 school districts under measures advanced Monday by a panel of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission.

In a unanimous vote, the commission’s Education Committee backed a measure (Proposal 43), sponsored by Commissioner Erika Donalds, that would impose an eight-year term limit on school board members, who now serve four-year terms without limits on running for re-election.

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Donalds, a Collier County School Board member, said her proposal was patterned after the eight-year term limit for members of the Legislature, which was adopted by voters in 1992.

“Term limits provide fresh faces and new ideas to elected office,” Donalds said. “Longtime politicians become entrenched with the status quo and develop a pride in ownership of the bureaucracy they helped to create and sustain.”

Donalds said limiting terms will reduce the influence of special-interest groups in elections and remove the power of incumbency, making it easier for new members to join school boards.

But the measure drew opposition from a number of education advocates.

Chris Doolin, representing a coalition of 38 rural school districts, said imposing term limits would be “a giant leap” from the current system and could hurt smaller districts where there is “a limited pool of folks willing to run and serve on their boards.”

“This proposal is arbitrary,” Doolin said. “It is unfair, and it doesn’t trust the voters.”

Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said a review of school board races since 2010 showed 65.5 percent of the races were competitive, with a 41 percent turnover rate.

“School board races are some of the most challenged races in the local communities,” Messina said. “We agree it should be left up to the local voters.”

Shawn Frost, chairman of the Indian River County School Board, said he had advanced the idea of term limits because he believed board members should be performing “a public service” rather than looking to establish a career.

Commissioner Marva Johnson, chairwoman of the education panel, added an amendment to Donalds’ proposal that would make term limits “partially retroactive.”

She said her aim was to start the term-limit clock going back to the 2016 elections even though the proposal, if it is adopted by the full Constitution Revision Commission, will be on the 2018 ballot.

The 37-member Constitution Revision Commission, which meets every 20 years, has the power to place proposed constitutional amendments directly on the 2018 ballot. Its committees are considering dozens of proposals, with the commission expected to whittle the list of ballot measures in the coming months.

Any proposals that go on the ballot would need approval from 60 percent of voters to change the Constitution.

In a 6-2 vote Monday, the commission’s Education Committee also adopted another Donalds measure (P33) that would require all school districts to appoint their superintendents rather than have them elected.

Currently, 26 districts, including all of Florida’s major metropolitan areas, appoint their superintendents, while 41 districts, representing largely smaller, more rural counties, elect superintendents.

Donalds said Florida is out of step since the overwhelmingly majority of school systems across the nation appoint superintendents. She said only Alabama and Florida still allow elections.

Donalds and other supporters also said allowing the appointment of superintendents would broaden the pool of potential school administrators, rather than restricting the job to county residents through the elections process.

Pasco County Superintendent Kurt Browning, who is elected, opposed the measure.

“My fundamental concern is the loss of local control,” Browning said.

Noting the statewide average for the tenure of appointed school superintendents was about three years, Browning said there is “much more” stability with an elected superintendent, who serves a four-year term.

He also discounted the argument that appointing superintendents reduces the politics in the process, noting appointed administrators still need to keep the support of at least three members of a five-member school board.

“It is political whether you are appointed or elected,” he said.

Donalds also asked the Education Committee to delay a vote on a third measure (P32) that would eliminate salaries for school board members.

The salaries now average more than $34,000 a year statewide, ranging from $25,413 in Lafayette County to $44,443 in the largest counties.

The two measures approved by the education panel next head to the commission’s Local Government Committee.

If amendments clear the committees and are taken up by the full commission, they will need support from 22 of the 37 members to be placed on the November 2018 general-election ballot. The commission has a May 10 deadline for finishing its work.

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