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.”