Florida school board members visited the state Capitol Building and sat in the Senate gallery. Feb. 3, 2022. Credit: Screenshot/Florida Channel
Local school board members sat in the Florida Senate gallery Thursday while Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat who represents part of Broward County, acknowledged the elected officials during the legislative session.
“This has been a trying few years for all of us, dealing with COVID, but I don’t know that anyone has been affected as much as children and education. These school board members have worked tirelessly, dealing with the myriad of issues,” Farmer said in the Senate chamber.
“We owe so much to these folks,” Farmer said. “The (Florida) Constitution gives them the responsibility to operate and maintain their schools and their districts and they have just been working around the clock making sure our kids continue to get a good education here in the state of Florida, something we all care about and want to see happen.”
The Senate gave a round of applause.
One board member tweeted from the gallery: “Nice to have the school board members attending the Senate sitting today recognized.”
What wasn’t elaborated on was that some local school boards, including Broward, had been clashing for months with the DeSantis administration and state officials over who has control over Florida’s public schools — the local boards under the Florida Constitution or the executive branch. Broward and several other school boards had been penalized last fall — meaning the state docked board members’ pay — over mask policies. The money has been returned.
Now, Republican members of the Florida House and Senate have been pushing legislation to limit school board pay. At first, a House bill proposed zero salary for local school board members.
Then, the Senate proposed a small salary of $29,697 — the same as Florida lawmakers, which would dramatically cut most school board member salaries.
More recently, the House bill, while still eliminating board member salaries, moved to permit a $200 stipend for each regularly scheduled board meeting and special meetings — not to exceed $4,800 for each board member annually.
Either way, the bills continue efforts to reduce how much school board members are paid, impacting an elected position that is predominately held by women and leading to questions of sexism.
State Sen. Joe Gruters, who also is the chair of the Republican Party of Florida and the sponsor of SB 1300, has proposed that all school board members should at least make the same pay as Florida lawmakers.
That could mean salary increases if lawmakers provide a raise in the state budget.
The House bill, HB 1467, is sponsored by Rep. Sam Garrison, a Republican who represents part of Clay County in northeast Florida. That bill has been moving on the issue and getting closer to a full House vote.
Currently, school board members are paid an annual salary that varies by district. According to an annual report from the Office of Economic and Demographic Research, salaries range from about $27,000 in smaller counties to about $47,189 in Florida’s largest school districts. That’s based on 2021-22 data.
Danielle Thomas, director of advocacy for the Florida School Boards Association, opposed the House bill when it was presented to the House Appropriations committee last week.
“Taking away school board salaries would create great inequities across our members. In particular affecting our members of color, women, and our rural school board members,” Thomas told lawmakeres.
“Removing salaries would truly glean to the elite that could afford no salary who would be able to serve, and would make school board members the only constitutional officers to serve without compensation.”
During public testimony last week, Thomas relayed the responsibilities of school board members:
“They oversee hundreds, if not, thousands of employees, and some have millions- or even billion-dollar budgets. In many of our counties, our school districts are the largest employers in those districts.”
She continued: “They research and review policies, respond to constituents, visit schools, participate in activities in addition to serving during the regularly scheduled school board meetings as well special meetings, work sessions, and executive sessions… Many of our school board members must use their personal time away from work or their businesses in order to conduct school board work. This results in a loss of vacation time, a loss of income, and loss of business revenue.”
Defending his bill, Rep. Garrison said that some members may use the school board position as a launching pad for their political careers. Though he said that board members perform “a constitutionally important function” they are public servants, not full-time employees.
“I think its about cost-benefit analysis. To my mind we will attract more people who are there for the right reasons and dissuade more of those who are there for the wrong reasons,” Garrison said.
Garrison introduced a similar bill in the 2021 legislative session, proposing that cutting the salaries of school board members could help remove “political squabbling” out of a “non-partisan” and “limited-oversight” position, the Phoenix previously reported.
The Phoenix tried to contact Garrison for comment but has not yet received a response.
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