A bill bound for the House floor would loosen the residency requirements for running for School Board.
Legislation (HB 411) from Republican Rep. Kevin Steele of Dade City is among a number of Republican bills that would reshape how School Board seats are filled across the state. Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken a keen interest in School Boards as the first Governor to identify a slate of candidates he wished to see voted into office.
Steele’s bill would require School Board candidates to reside in the district they want to represent at the time of election. Currently, the law requires that School Board candidates live in the district before that time — at qualifying.
Steele says he wrote the bill because of a specific circumstance involving a School Board member who was elected and then faced a legal challenge because work being done on his residence put him outside the district at the prescribed time.
“He had mold in his house that he was in, and so he went to court and he had to pay $50,000 to defend his winning,” Steele told a House subcommittee last week. “Ultimately, he won his case.”
The bill would put School Board elections in line with the residency requirements of other major elected offices in the state. Senators, Representatives and County Commissioners must reside in the place he or she is running to represent at the time of the election. For county constitutional officers, the elected individual doesn’t have to reside in the county until assuming office.
Sen. Blaise Ingoglia of Spring Hill has proposed similar legislation (SB 444) that, like Steele’s bill, has run into Democratic opposition. So far, it’s gotten one committee nod, with all three Democrats on the Senate Committee on Ethics and Elections voting against it.
Critics of the bill say that a more narrowly tailored bill could address the circumstances that Steele cited. They argue School Board seats are unique among elected offices, and should remain that way.
Democratic Rep. Angie Nixon of Jacksonville questioned whether this will open up School Board seats to political opportunists, rather than people who would have the awareness to know whether a food desert or neighborhood trauma is affecting students’ academic performance.
“All too often we pass bills here in the Legislature that’s more about power and control as opposed to actually representing the people,” she said. “It’s time we stopped playing politics and really started looking out for the overall well-being and quality of life for our students and our community here in the state of Florida.”
Steele, however, said people who don’t really know the community probably won’t get elected.
“The community is who is going to vote for you anyway,” he said. “If you don’t know your area, they’re not going to vote for you.”
Other School Board-focused legislation on the move would make it so that School Board elections are partisan, allow School Board candidates to list their party affiliation on advertising, and drop the limit on School Board terms from the 12-year limit passed last year to an eight-year limit.