Board members voted 3-2 to pass a resolution opposing proposed constitutional amendment
Sarasota County School Board members narrowly voted this week to adopt a resolution publicly opposing a controversial proposed constitutional amendment that would reduce local control over charter schools and establish term limits for school board members across the state, but the decision was clearly not supported by two of the board’s members who are seen by some as charter school advocates.
Written by the Florida School Boards Association and approved by the Greater Florida Consortium of School Boards, a group made of 10 of the largest school districts in the state, the resolution opposes Amendment 8, a three-pronged proposal.
The proposed constitutional amendment would make three major changes to public education in Florida: it would establish a two-term limit for school board members, call for the “promotion of civic literacy” in classrooms, and, most notably, change the language so that local school boards manage only all-public schools “established by the district school board,” meaning that the state can also “operate, control and supervise” public schools, namely charter schools that will not be directly approved by the school board. The measure has to be approved by a minimum of 60 percent of voters in the November general election to pass.
The proposal has already attracted the attention of activist groups. Last week, the Florida League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit in the Leon County court to remove Amendment 8 from the ballot, calling it misleading.
The Greater Consortium letter discussing Amendment 8 calls it “not necessary, not fair, not desirable, and is not clearly understandable.” Many of the Sarasota School Board members echoed these sentiments.
“The one that’s so egregious to me is the one about moving the authority to Tallahassee. It doesn’t say anything about charter in that, they left it as broad a brush as they could … so that it could be starting a school of giraffes, or anything else they might choose to do, they would have the ability to do that,” said School Board member Jane Goodwin of the amendment. “… That will really throw a wedge between public schools and charter schools.”
Board member Shirley Brown noted that she felt the civic-literacy and term-limit proposals were meant to obscure the charter school portion of the amendment.
“I know it’s wrapped up in two very good things, but there’s something in the middle that I believe was purposely made cloudy so people wouldn’t see it and wouldn’t understand it,” Brown said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We need to do what we can to let people know where we stand on it. This does not say we are going to spend any money or use any resources or do anything else on this except say we’re opposed to it.”
Eric Robinson was the first board member to speak, indicating that his opposition of the resolution was not based on charter schools, but his thoughts on whether a government could tell voters how to vote.
“There are plenty of things on Amendment 8 that I don’t support. I don’t think that we should have the state dictating the charter schools,” Robinson said. “… My issue has to do with do I want a government body telling the citizens how to vote?”
Board Chairwoman Bridget Ziegler, who serves as president of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, an organization that supports the increase of school choice programs across the state, essentially agreed with Robinson’s statement.
“I understand why there is heartburn over this, I do; however, I don’t believe it’s appropriate or the right role of this governing body to take action and tell voters how to vote,” Ziegler said. “I think it’s a tiptoe of a line on political activity under our authority as a board. I will be voting no on this. I just fundamentally disagree on us taking a position on a constitutional amendment.”
Both Board member Caroline Zucker and Brown countered Robinson and Ziegler’s views, noting that the Greater Consortium represents the districts with the large populations of students and that their position as School Board members was to “advocate for public schools.”
Charter schools have traditionally been a hot-button topic on the board. Just before the board was scheduled to vote, Zucker wanted to say one more comment, which prompted Ziegler to remind her that they were about to vote.
“I don’t appreciate what’s happening here at this board meeting today,” Zucker said to Ziegler. “I do not like your demeanor. I do not like the fact that any time I want to speak, you say something about it. I don’t like it. I do not know what the problem is here.”
The conversation echoed debate that arose after the state Legislature last year passed House Bill 7069, which funneled more public money to charter schools. At that time, Brown proposed sending a letter from the board to Florida Gov. Rick Scott asking him to veto the bill. That discussion quickly turned into an argument over public education.
Later, at another meeting, Robinson praised Ziegler for her work lobbying state legislators. The comment was not met with support from other board members, many of whom were disappointed with the demands placed on the district by HB 7069.
“I’m not aware of what Bridget did in Tallahassee,” Goodwin said at the time. “I don’t always know if it’s for Sarasota County Schools or it’s from your consortium, which has quite a different view on a number of things than I do. You as part of the School Board have a priority of first and foremost representing Sarasota County.”
Both Ziegler and Robinson are members of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, a group that formed as an alternative to the established Florida School Boards Association.
The organization also has significant ties to individuals who were involved with creating and crafting Amendment 8.
Its current board of directors includes Erika Donalds, a Collier County School Board member and Constitutional Revision Commission member who was the co-proposer of Amendment 8, as well as the wife of state Rep. Byron Donalds. Rebecca Negron, a Martin County School Board member and wife of outgoing Senate President Joe Negron, is another member.
The chair of the Constitutional Revision Commission, prominent Manatee County developer Carlos Beruff, also has supported Ziegler in her 2018 campaign for re-election to the School Board, contributing $10,000 through various businesses connected to an address linked with his name.
Donalds has also publicly worked with Robinson in the past on legislative matters, when the Sarasota Board member proposed a constitutional amendment in November to eliminate salaries for school board members. That proposal did not make it through the education committee.