Rep. Spencer Roach filed legislation Thursday that could be the first step in making school board races partisan again.
The North Fort Myers Republican filed legislation, House Joint Resolution 35, that would put a new constitutional amendment on the ballot to overturn a 1998 amendment. That would end a nonpartisan system used to elect school board members in every county in the state for the past two decades.
The move comes as Republicans focus attention on school board races in the 2022 cycle. Roach, the chair of the Lee County Legislative Delegation, has also taken public issue with several decisions by the Lee County School Board including its policy allowing students to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity. He anticipates liberal policies at school boards across the state will come into question this year.
“Parents are outraged by the radicalism of the entrenched educational establishment, and incumbent school board members across the country will see a reckoning of historic proportions at the ballot box in 2022,” Roach said.
That said, even if Roach’s legislation passes it would appear on the ballot in 2022 and require a supermajority of 60% of voters statewide to approve the amendment. If approved, partisan races would go into effect for the 2024 election cycle.
Roach said many of the issues coming in front of school boards statewide are partisan. Thus, voters should know the party of candidates running for positions.
“There is now a clear partisan divide over issues of critical race theory, mask mandates, bathroom policies and school choice,” he said. “The crux of the debate is who should control a child’s education: the government — or parents? I’ve always believed that in every electoral contest, the goal should be maximum transparency. Knowing the political affiliation of candidates should be a fundamental right for all citizens in a representative democracy. Why should we hide this information from voters?”
Expect critics to list reasons. One likely one: Before nonpartisan school board races went into effect because of the 1998 amendment, many races ended up being decided in closed primaries. That meant in heavily Republican counties, like Lee, Democrats and independent voters had virtually no say in the outcome of races. Similarly, in Democratic counties like Broward, Republicans and independents were cut out of the vote.
Voters in 1998 also approved a change to the constitution that said if only candidates from one party file, the election will be open to all voters regardless of party affiliation. But write-in candidates have frequently filed in partisan races, effectively closing the Primary to registered voters of a single party,
But Roach has complained the nonpartisan school structure has produced school boards whose policies don’t align with the electorate at large. Besides his recent argument with the Lee board over bathroom access, Lee County Schools just issued a mask mandate (with an opt-out) despite Gov. Ron DeSantis issuing an executive order on the topic.
DeSantis announced that policy in Lee, a county he won by more than 60,000 votes in 2018.