In education, experience remains a valuable asset
Does Florida have a terrible problem of school board members amassing dictatorial powers and building permanent political fiefdoms all over the state?
If not, then why are so many legislators so intent on imposing an eight-year term limit on those county officials? It’s as if lawmakers decided that, since they can only serve eight consecutive sessions in House or Senate, they should mandate the same time’s-up rule back home.
Constitutional amendments are moving in the current session and it looks as if the idea will get the required three-fifths vote in both chambers. Democrats have enough votes to prevent passage — a rarity in the Republican- run Capitol — but support for term-limiting school board members seems mixed.
Odds of passage improved this week when Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, agreed to amend his proposal (SJR 1216) to set an eight-year limit. Gruters had initially proposed 12 years, but the change by the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee puts his plan in sync with the House version by Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills.
Assuming it gets through the House and Senate, the amendment will require 60% public support at the polls next November. That shouldn’t be hard, as polls indicate wide public support for the idea of term limits in general.
Maybe we all like to see the powerful taken down a notch. Governors and state Cabinet officers can only have two four-year terms and, since the “Eight is Enough” edict was easily approved in a 1992 public-petition campaign, members of the Legislature have had the same limit.
That meant all members then in the House or Senate could not appear on the ballot in 2000. Have you noticed a marked improvement in the quality of Florida laws, greater fairness in taxes, and more efficiency in state government since then?
Yeah, me neither.
What has changed is that we got rid of a few mossback old guys who’d become part of the furniture, only dumber. The price of their disposal was to throw away the services of some young, intelligent, hard-working people who wanted to make a difference.
And we wound up being governed by an inner circle of members recruited by business interests and obedient to the party leadership. Truthfully, that wasn’t so different from the old days – the bosses were just younger.
The term-limits theory of “fresh blood” and “new ideas” meant, in practice, a fresh circle of Federalist Society, Americans for Prosperity and American Legislative Exchange Council admirers every few years.
Too often, the purpose of seeking an eight-year job is to plan the next step up the ladder, whether it be seeking higher office, obeying the governor so he’ll find you an executive sinecure, or lining up a lobbying job.
The trouble with any arbitrary time limit is, while it feels good to tell our elected leaders to move on, there’s no guarantee their replacements will be improvements. In fact, tossing out eight years of experience almost assures the newcomer will be less adept, at least for the first session or three.
But school board members are not like legislators. Education is the most important and expensive thing state government does. It should be overseen by skilled county superintendents and board members with backgrounds in teaching, management and raising children.
The ability to run a political campaign and raise money, particularly from contractors doing business with the schools, is not a skill we need. School board service can be a step toward the county commission, the mayor’s job or a seat in Tallahassee. But wouldn’t it be better to have members who want to settle in and think longterm about improving the schools?
The Sun Sentinel in Broward County recently wondered in an editorial if this is an effort get back at school boards for resisting charter schools, tuition vouchers and the arming of teachers — all GOP orders from Tallahassee. The newspaper also noted that the Broward board declined to oust a superintendent Gov. Ron DeSantis wants out.
Incumbency is a big advantage in any office. But the Florida School Boards Association calculated that 64% of members up for reelection in 2018 won new terms, while 36% were newcomers. Two years earlier, it was 54% reelected and 46 new faces.
That’s pretty good turnover — without term limits.