Florida Republicans take aim at school board members’ salaries

MATIAS J. OCNER/mocner@miamiherald.com
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As Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Republicans amplify local school board politics in the lead-up to the 2022 midterms, GOP-backed measures that would slash the pay of the vast majority of elected school board members are gaining traction in the Florida Legislature.

On Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee approved a bill that would make school board members’ salaries equal to the salaries of members of the Florida Legislature, which is currently $29,697. The move would reduce the pay of school board members in 49 of Florida’s 67 school districts, according to the bill’s analysis.

Members who were elected to serve the state’s five largest school districts — including Miami-Dade, Broward and Hillsborough — could see their salaries cut by roughly $17,000 a year under the proposal, Senate Bill 1300. School board members in 18 school districts may see a boost to their salaries, according to the bill analysis.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican who doubles as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said his bill would align school board members’ salaries to the amount state legislators make. He said it is a “fair” offer, compared to a House proposal that would turn all school board members into volunteers.

“I do feel that they are entitled to compensation because they do a job, but the question is how much should they be paid?” Gruters said. “I think what we are offering is fair.”

The three Democrats on the Senate Education Committee voted against the measure, arguing that the proposal was politically motivated and that it would contribute to the “vilification of our schools and schools boards.” House Democrats have also worried slashing the pay would make it harder for candidates who are not independently wealthy.

“The only thing I can think of is that there has been a lot of political discussions in the state and it sounds like this is politically motivated against these school board members,” Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach, said. “I just can’t be part of it.”

For several months last year, DeSantis openly clashed with several school boards over masking requirements in schools and amid the feud, his administration docked the pay of school board members that imposed strict masking rules the governor did not want in place.

One Republican voices ‘reservations’

Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, was the only Republican lawmaker in the committee who is said to have “serious, serious reservations” about limiting school board members’ salaries.

“I don’t think they need to be punished for the decisions that they make even though I might not agree with every school board member that it is in my district,” Hutson said. “Just because one school district is doing something bad, it doesn’t mean that we should punish them and also punish everyone else.”

Hutson asked Gruters to make changes to his bill as it moves through the legislative process this year. But it is unclear whether Gruters will respond to the request, as he argues the bill is not meant to punish school board members, who he said are volunteers in other parts of the country.

According to a National School Boards Association report from 2017, 75% of small-district school board members receive no salary.

Gruters, who according to his financial disclosure form, is worth $1.3 million, said school board members earning just as much as state legislators would be “fair.”

The proposed legislation comes as education politics have consumed school board meetings. DeSantis and Florida Republicans have seized on the issue since the start of the pandemic and are now taking aim at school boards as they try to look at ways to give more power to parents and not “politicians,” as some Republican lawmakers characterize school board members.

School board elections in Florida are non-partisan, at least for now.

The Virginia effect

Republican lawmakers in Florida have often mentioned the Virginia governor’s race when talking about these proposals. In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe in part by focusing on the issue of schools. Republicans’ final push on that race mobilized voters around parents’ frustrations.

Democrat Rep. Charlie Crist, who is running for Florida governor, has started appealing directly to parents, too, with a group named “Parents for Crist” that was unveiled last week, according to POLITICO Florida.

In the state Capitol, the issue of school boards is part of that playbook.

Gruters is also sponsoring legislation that would ask voters to consider making school board races partisan again. That bill has been approved by one of its three committee assignments.

For Democrats, targeting school board members and their pay is a stretch too far.

“These people work incredibly hard for the purpose of the education of our children,” Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said. “I don’t want to see their salaries cut, and I don’t want to see people treating them the way I believe … our state Legislature is working to chip away at the independence of the school board and the respect we should have for elected officials just like us.”

CORRECTION: This article was updated on Jan. 26, 2022, to correctly reflect that the bill would make school board members’ salaries equal to the annual salaries of members of the Florida Legislature, which is currently set at $29,697.

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