Partisan school board races ballot measure bill set for Senate vote

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Candidates for school board positions would be allowed to tell voters their political affiliation under a ballot measure that would go before voters as part of a bill set for a final vote in the Senate.

Under HJR 31, voters in the 2024 General Election would decide whether to move to partisan elections for school boards, starting the following election cycle.

Senators questioned and debated the bill Tuesday ahead of a final vote Wednesday. The bill passed the House on Mar. 31 in a 79-34 vote along party lines, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.

Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican sponsoring the measure, said the elections are essentially partisan anyway, with both the Republican and Democratic parties playing games to avoid saying a candidate’s political affiliation. In a heavily Democratic area, a Republican candidate will pose as Democratic-leaning, and vice versa, he said.

“A lot of times it’s who can trick the most voters,” said Gruters, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “What we’re doing in this bill is we’re giving the voters the full knowledge, the full transparency.”

But Democrats suggested moving to partisan elections would insert bitter partisanship on school boards, trickling down to superintendents and warping the ostensible focus on providing quality education to students.

“Now once you get Democrats and Republicans involved the school board superintendent is almost forced to have to be the party of the (school board’s majority),” said Sen. Bobby Powell, a West Palm Beach Democrat.

A proposed constitutional amendment doesn’t require Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature, and the measure would be placed on the November 2024 ballot if it clears the Senate. But it would need 60% support from voters to be added to the state constitution.

DeSantis has already thrown his political clout around in school board races in the previous election cycle with the restrictions on partisanship in place. Most of the slate of two dozen candidates won.