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Politics have seeped into school board elections; Amendment 1 could make it official

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Politics have seeped into school board elections; Amendment 1 could make it official

May 29, 2024 | 7:00 am ET
By Jackie Llanos
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Politics have seeped into school board elections; Amendment 1 could make it official
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Close-up of voting ballot. (Getty Images)

For nearly three decades, Florida school board elections have been nonpartisan. But this November, under Amendment 1, voters could choose the political approach, which would allow Democrats, Republicans and other party candidates to sit on partisan school boards.

Supporters of the constitutional amendment say they want to increase transparency in areas from building projects and school calendars to curricula and teacher pay, but opponents worry it could alienate independent voters.

It would take 60 percent of voters in the general election to approve a change on the current nonpartisan boards, which include 67 traditional school districts in Florida. The ballot specifies that “the amendment only applies to elections held on or after the November 2026 general election.”

In the spring of 2023, the Florida Legislature passed a resolution, which Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed for, to put on the ballot an amendment to make school board elections partisan. Republican Rep. Dean Black is one of the lawmakers who co-sponsored the resolution because it would make it easier for voters to be informed, he told Florida Phoenix in a phone interview.

Politics have seeped into school board elections; Amendment 1 could make it official
Rep. Dean Black, R-Jacksonville, questions a presenter during a House committee. January 26, 2023. Credit: FL House of Representatives

“I thought it seemed like a really good idea for our voters to know exactly what they’re voting for in elections that are as important as our school board races have come to be,” he said. Black represents Nassau County and part of Duval.

Although Amendment 1 is not getting as much attention as the other ballot initiatives — to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution and allow the use of recreational marijuana — Black is optimistic it will pass, and if it does, school board candidates will have more time to explain their policies rather than their politics, he said.

“There will be less need for the candidates to spend time campaigning to explain their philosophy because the banner and brand that they wear already does a lot of that explaining for them, and that’s going to free candidates up to speak about the nuts-and-bolts issues that are affecting our schools,” Black said. “They can talk about whether they should build a new school, whether they need to close the school, whether they need to improve security, nuts and bolts, day-to-day, grassroots, issues that every parent will care about will be able to be talked about more in detail, more in-depth. It’ll make for better candidates, better elections, better-informed voters, and, ultimately, stronger school boards that better reflect the will of the parents.”

Running in a nonpartisan election

Politics have seeped into school board elections; Amendment 1 could make it official
Vanessa Chaviano is a candidate for Lee County School Board District 7. Photo courtesy of Chaviano.

Vanessa Chaviano is a first-time candidate for a Florida school board race. And getting people to know her has been the biggest challenge. The mother of two is running for the District 7 seat on the Lee County School Board. The board oversees more than 90,000 students across 96 traditional public schools and 119 charter schools, according to the school district. She is a registered Republican from Cape Coral, and she supports Amendment 1 because voters deserve to know their candidate’s party affiliations.

“When you’re going door to door and door knocking, you’re knocking on everyone’s door, not one party or the other on a nonpartisan race,” she said during a phone interview. “Depending on which side you’re on, you’re not going to see eye to eye, right? So it’s good to know and to have that conversation and understand where everyone is to find that middle ground for our kids.”

The Southwest Florida county has 224,804 registered Republicans compared to 109,540 Democrats, 12,045 people registered with minor parties, and 129,654 no party affiliation voters, according to the Florida Division of Elections voter registration data.

Historically, school boards and other local elections tend to be nonpartisan because those positions don’t have a high profile, said Matthew Nelsen, a political science assistant professor at the University of Miami. His research focuses on how schools and neighborhoods act as a microcosm of democracy.

The turn of the millennium was the first time Florida had nonpartisan school board elections. The change also came about because of a constitutional amendment in 1998, which approximately 64% of voters approved, according to the division of elections. However, the amendment with the provision to make school board elections nonpartisan also included other voter reforms. One of which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.

“Essentially” partisan races

“I always say participating in elections is incredibly costly for voters. It takes a lot of time to figure out not only who it is you’re going to vote for, but also take time away from your family and friends to actually get to the ballot box,” Nelsen said. “I would argue that nonpartisan elections historically have worked to increase the time that voters need to take in order to figure out who to vote for. A lot of voters use the party as a proxy or a frame of reference for, like, ‘Hey, I may not have the time I need today to dig into the school board candidates, but I know that I’m a Democrat, so I’m going to vote for the Democratic candidate.'”

Nelsen continued: “So, historically, nonpartisan elections have worked to ensure that only the highest information voters have the right or have the wherewithal to actually make it to the ballot box.”

Considering the heightened political attention from culture war topics such as critical race theory that have made the school board elections essentially partisan, Nelsen said he doesn’t see the amendment as a move to increase voter turnout, though that could be an outcome.

“Overall, I don’t imagine that this is going to change much. School board politics, education politics has become nationalized since like 2019, 2020,” he said. “So, this notion that we’ve ever had nonpartisan school board elections in the state of Florida, it’s kind of wild because we have all been watching the media coverage of these races over the past three years, and we’ve seen that partisanships seeps in, regardless of whether or not the races themselves are partisan or nonpartisan.”

Even Gov. Ron DeSantis became involved in school board elections during his tenure, bringing unparalleled attention to county leaders overseeing public schools, with victories for many of the candidates he has backed.

What about independent voters?

Politics have seeped into school board elections; Amendment 1 could make it official
Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins speaking in Centennial Park in Ybor City in Tampa on May 7, 2023. (Credit: Mitch Perry)

Jennifer Jenkins, a Brevard School Board member, launched the federal Educated We Stand hybrid PAC recently to push back against the politicization in school board elections across the state and country. Jenkins gained popularity after defeating Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich for the Brevard County seat in 2020. Jenkins does not plan to run for another school board term in Brevard.

“I don’t see the benefit of it,” she told the Phoenix in a phone interview. “Are you saying that you don’t want voters to have to educate themselves on the quality of the candidates that they’re choosing? Do you want them to be able to just walk into a ballot box and select someone simply because of the party that they’re registered to? It’s disingenuous.”

When it comes to the vote in November, Jenkins said she believes voters will approve the amendment. But she also said that running in a nonpartisan election helped her connect with all kinds of people. Her goal with the PAC is to provide financial resources for board members who will defend public education.

Another reason Jenkins opposes Amendment 1 is that it could lead to closed primaries, where only registered Democrats or registered Republicans will be able to vote for the candidates of those parties.

“A lot of these school board races have five, six candidates inside of them in the first round,” she said. “That independent voter doesn’t get a choice. They don’t get to select who they want, and in a time of extreme polarization, we want everyone to have a voice.”

State Rep. Black said that while it is true that there could be closed Republican or Democratic primaries, there could also be a primary if more than one independent candidate ran.

Politics have seeped into school board elections; Amendment 1 could make it official
Steve Hough (photo credit: Steve Hough)

As a political independent from the Panhandle, Steve Hough has been advocating against closed primaries. He told the Phoenix that he expects Amendment 1 will pass, but that it would be a shame. He is the director of Florida Fair and Open Primaries, which is a grassroot organization.

“I’m opposed, naturally. Being a closed primary state, we already restrict independents from having a voice in our state general elections. The local level is the only place that we really get to participate.”

Similar to Jenkins, he said voters would just choose whichever school board candidate aligns with their party instead of becoming informed if the elections become partisan.

“I think that’ll take away from voters’, not only their ability but, in my opinion, their obligation, to research who these people are and what their agenda is and make a decision that’s well informed,” Hough said.

More than 3.5 million Floridians are independent voters, which are considered No Party Affiliation in Florida, according to the division of elections voter data.

Here is the ballot summary on Amendment 1:

Proposing amendments to the State Constitution to require members of a district school board to be elected in a partisan election rather than a nonpartisan election and to specify that the amendment only applies to elections held on or after the November 2026 general election. However, partisan primary elections may occur before the 2026 general election for purposes of nominating political party candidates to that office for placement on the 2026 general election ballot.