Joe Gruters signs on as Senate sponsor for partisan school board push
Screenshot image via The Florida Channel.

Gruters sales tax
Florida GOP Chair says it's time voters know school board candidates' political affiliation.

It remains to be seen if voters want partisan school board races. But the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida thinks it’s a good idea.

Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican, filed legislation (SJR 244) that would restore partisan elections for School Board positions across the state. The bill serves as a companion to one filed in the House by Rep. Spencer Roach, a North Fort Myers Republican.

“Anyone who would say School Board races are not partisan is not paying attention,” said Gruters, who also serves as chair of his state party.

A move to partisan elections for School Board would require changing the Florida constitution thanks to an amendment passed in 1998 by more than 64% of voters. That means even if the Legislature passes the joint resolutions in the House and Senate, any change would need to go before voters in the next General Election, and it would take a 60% vote by the public to put the change into effect.

But Gruters believes voters are in a different place right now. While voters in the 1990s may not have viewed School Board seats as partisan posts, parties are already involved today in support or opposition to School Board candidates across the state.

“With everything going on right now, it makes perfect sense,” Gruters said. “There’s no transparency right now. It’s all a game to see who can conceal their identity the most while the parties are blasting who is in each party.”

Notably, the Sarasota County School Board in Gruters’ home county has a Democratic majority now, despite the fact Republican President Donald Trump carried the county by 28,000 votes in 2020. Last year, a Democrat, Tom Edwards, defeated incumbent Eric Robinson, a former Republican Party of Sarasota County chair.

Also of note, Roach, in deep red Lee County, has complained about the ideology of his local School Board, which has a 4-3 Republican majority despite Trump winning the county by nearly 76,000 votes, and is chaired by a registered Democrat.

Gruters said while parties will back candidates in their own party, many voters are left in the dark as candidate’s ideology doesn’t appear on the ballot and state law forbids them campaigning as a member of a party.

“People register with a certain party because they share similar beliefs and core values,” he said.

Gruters notably has said in state party meetings that retaking more school board seats statewide will be a priority for Florida Republicans this year. That said, he acknowledges partisan elections may make it easier to elect Republicans in Sarasota, but harder in Broward County.

“That’s unfortunate, but I would do a better job at voter registration or move to a county that shares your conservative values,” he advised of Republicans in blue counties.

But such a change to election systems won’t just impact candidates. It will also mean independent voters and those in a minority party will be frozen out of August elections when primaries get decided. With many partisan races like Senator or Representative, it’s those party nomination fights that effectively decide an office holder, especially considering write-in candidates can easily close primaries to registered voters within a party to get around Florida’s open Primary law.

At least in his home county, Gruters doesn’t see anything unfair about moving to a Primary system. Democrats will surely continue running candidates for School Board; it’s just voters will know who they are.

But as education issues like mask mandates and Critical Race Theory — Gruters also signed on as Senate sponsor for Rep. Randy Fine’s bill extending a ban on teaching the controversial philosophy to the university level — Gruters said it’s more important than ever voters know candidates’ values before they’re put in charge of public schools.

“I think people want to know on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “It’s only people who try and play games; they are the ones who don’t want voters to know.”

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected]


14 comments

  • Ron Ogden

    September 17, 2021 at 4:02 pm

    Nonpartisanship is a sham and we all know it. All it does is shackle the majority, thereby giving minority parties a chance that their numbers don’t support. School board elections should indeed be partisan. So should judge elections. Frankly, they all should be. Make candidates declare the philosophy that will guide them in office. Don’t let them hide behind nonpartisanship. How often do you see an NPA running a credible race for a substantial position? Not very.

    • Alex

      September 17, 2021 at 5:45 pm

      “We all know it”
      Translation;
      “This is what I want you to believe”

      • Ron Ogden

        September 17, 2021 at 8:46 pm

        “There is no such thing as nonpartisanship.” A Democratic county chair told me that on FB about four years ago. No surprise.

        • Alex

          September 17, 2021 at 9:52 pm

          Because you said so.

          Yawn.

  • Alex

    September 17, 2021 at 4:48 pm

    The voters already decided this when they passed the Constitutional Amendment.

    But Republicans don’t care about voters, just getting their way, which historically is usually wrong.

    • JD

      September 17, 2021 at 5:29 pm

      It feels very much like the system is getting rigged to try and be a one party system. The de facto two party system was bad enough.

      Florida 3rd party and independent candidates are already squeezed out (effectively) of most positions.

      That does not seem very democratic or republic.

      • Ron Ogden

        September 17, 2021 at 8:48 pm

        Join a minor party and make it a major party. While you’re doing it, polish up your arguments against open primaries. When you’ve sweated blood for 30 years to make you little party your BIG party, things will look different.

        • JD

          September 17, 2021 at 9:44 pm

          Apparently a lot of others are for open primaries. Amendment 3 got 57% of the votes, which is a majority. If not for the 60% constitutional rule it would have been law.

          While I’m not sure I like someone coming into the someone else’s organization and dictating their representatives , closed primaries exclude millions of voters when there is a candidate running essentially unopposed in a primary decided election with that bs write in rule from the 1990’s.

        • Alex

          September 17, 2021 at 9:59 pm

          Like the Electoral College gives an unfair advantage to empty states, and the filibuster lets one Senator stop a bill in it’s tracks.

          You’re a hypocrite son.

  • JD

    September 17, 2021 at 5:25 pm

    One’s partisan ideology should have zero bearing on their ability as a school board member or a judge. To have that ideological bias play in children’s education or justice is unethical for those professionals.

    Let the local electorates decide if they want Partisan or Non-Partisan.

    And my guess is it will split along partisan lines – Blue areas in the cities with the most population will say Non-Partisan and the Red smaller cities and rural areas will want Partisan.

    Everything is that way these days it seems.

    • Ron Ogden

      September 17, 2021 at 8:42 pm

      “One’s partisan ideology should have zero bearing one’s ability as a . . . judge.”
      Explain that to Biden when he talks about packing the court with people of a particular ideology. No, no. Until the day comes when we put robots in office (not as far away as you may think), the emotions and systems of belief in human beings will matter. Nonpartisanship tries to cover them up.

      • JD

        September 17, 2021 at 9:49 pm

        I concur on not packing the courts.

        And agreed machine learning and artificial intelligence is closer to making many policy decisions than we think if that was what you were implying. Our ethics, laws and technology are far out of sync.

        Until then, we need people that can separate their feelings from policy for the common good. But I won’t hold my breath after reading this blog.

  • Tom Palmer

    September 17, 2021 at 10:21 pm

    It’s just another opportunity for the GOP to recruit sham candidates to skew election results.

Comments are closed.


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