By John Haughey
The Center Square
January 13, 2020
A key Democrat has joined the push to impose term limits on school board members, an effort frustrated in 2018 when the Florida Supreme Court rejected a proposed constitutional amendment to cap board tenures and 2019 bills seeking to do so stalled.
Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, has filed a resolution seeking to place a proposed constitutional amendment to limit school board members from serving more than eight consecutive years in office before voters in November.
Book’s Senate Joint Resolution 1480 is identical to House Joint Resolution 157 filed on Sept. 12 by Reps. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, and Matt Wilhite, D-Royal Palm Beach.
The Florida Constitution sets out term limits for the governor, attorney general, chief financial officer, agriculture commissioner, state house representatives and state senators. Politicians can run for office again after sitting out one election cycle.
Some “charter” counties and municipalities also impose term limits on county commissioners and city council members. But not all Florida counties are “charter” municipalities. Therefore, they must comply with state laws and policies, meaning a constitutional amendment is the only legal way to impose uniform term limits on school boards statewide.
Eight-year term limits for school boards were among the recommendations forwarded in the proposed Amendment 8 by the Florida Constitution Revision Commission in 2018.
In addition to imposing term limits on school board members, Amendment 8 sought to increase the Legislature’s ability to create public schools and require students achieve “civic literacy.”
The Florida Supreme Court, however, ordered Amendment 8 removed from the November 2018 ballot, ruling the amendment’s ballot summary was misleading.
During the ensuing 2019 legislative session, Sabatini teamed up with Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, to introduce companion bills asking voters to approve a measure imposing eight-year term limits on the 360 elected members of the state’s 74 public school boards in a November 2020 ballot measure.
Baxley’s bill died in the Senate Rules Committee. Sabatini’s proposal made it through three House committees but never made it to a floor vote.
Appearing before the House Education Committee during the 2019 session, Sabatini said term limits on legislators and state executives have proven to be effective and should be expanded to local school boards.
“Term limits have actually made us, according to many academic studies, younger and more diverse,” he said. “There’s just a wider and a different spectrum of new folks coming into the system.”
Book’s SJR 1480 was praised by U.S. Term Limits (USTL), a Florida-based group spearheading a national term limits movement, which had already endorsed Sabatini’s HJR 157.
“Education is too important to be entrusted to self-serving career politicians,” USTL Executive Director Nick Tomboulides said in a statement. “Eight-year term limits will put a check on corruption, stymie special interests and allow for fresh faces to emerge. We applaud Sen. Book and Rep. Sabatini for stepping up to give the people of Florida a vote on term limits.”
The USTL cited a 2018 poll by McLaughlin & Associates in which 82 percent of Florida voters said they would support a constitutional amendment term limiting all school board members to eight years.
“That includes backing from 85 percent of Republicans, 80 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of independent voters,” USTL said in. Its release. “A 2019 poll by Pulse Research found that 84 percent of voters prefer a limit of eight years for school boards, as opposed to just 10 percent who say a 12-year limit would be best.”
School board term limits are also among Gov. Ron DeSantis’ objectives, who endorsed Sabatini’s 2019 bill and did so again in September when the lawmaker refiled the bill for 2020.
“The benefits of term limits are clear,” DeSantis said. “When an elected official is first seated, he or she comes in with a reformer spirit and desire to deliver change. But perpetual re-election tends to erode that public service outlook and replace it with one of entitlement. Long tenure in office tends to make people forget they work for us, and not the other way around.”
Opponents, including the Florida AFL-CIO, argue that if voters want to impose term limits on school board members, they can do so in the voting booth.
To get the measure before voters on the November ballot, it must be approved by 3/5ths majorities in both chambers. To be incorporated into the Constitution, it must be approved by 60 percent of voters.