‘A regular person?’ No more. School board members are entwined in DeSantis’ complex political arena

By: - June 24, 2022 7:00 am
Tampa mask mandate protest

Families protesting potential mask mandates in Florida. Credit: Octavio Jones/Getty Images

About two weeks ago, Brevard County school board member Jennifer Jenkins got a call from U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist’s gubernatorial campaign. It was about a potential running mate for Crist.

“They gave me a call and asked me if I would be willing to be placed on that list and considered, and, of course, I was super humbly grateful and — you know, if I’m being honest, I legitimately responded with ‘Why?'” she told the Florida Phoenix. “You know, I am just a regular person in my mind.”

This past week, Jenkins’ name appeared in a Politico article along with 17 other potential candidates on Crist’s list for Florida’s lieutenant governor. Crist, a former Republican governor, is running as a Democrat. He also served as Commissioner of Education.

Brevard School Board member Jennifer Jenkins. Credit: Brevard County School District.

But the days of being a “regular person” on a school board are essentially gone, swept up in new political wedge issues ranging from COVID-19 masks to what children can say about certain topics at public schools.

In an unusual move, Gov. Ron DeSantis has endorsed candidates in 10 local school board races, showcasing that the dynamics between state elected officials and elected school board members are getting increasingly close and complex.

Earlier this week, DeSantis’s Twitter page posted the endorsements, attempting to wield his influence on school board races in Alachua, Brevard, Duval, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Sarasota, and Volusia counties. Those were school districts that clashed with the executive branch over decisions affecting millions of students in Florida.

Andrea Messina, chief executive officer of the Florida School Boards Association, said it was the “first time” the organization has seen a governor endorse candidates in local school board elections.

“For some time now, the governor has been very clear that he is interested in local school board elections and he was going to play a role. So it’s not unexpected,” Messina said.

She said that endorsements for school board members have come from a variety of sources.

“It [a school board endorsement] has changed over the years, certainly. Fellow locals, fellow elected officials would do it. Citizens, prominent citizens. Sometimes industry leaders. You know, it evolves over time. As more and more segments of the population become interested and involved in public school issues and governance and races, then you start to see more types of endorsements coming out,” she said.

“Gosh, over the years we’ve seen civic organizations, churches, local homeowners associations — newspapers for sure, editorial boards. Things like that.”

She told the Phoenix that political parties or other statewide organizations will sometimes endorse candidates for local school boards.

“But typically they’re more focused on local leaders and local influence,” she added.

That said, the word local may be a misnomer. There are 67 school districts in Florida and many are massive in terms of geography and school enrollment.

“Collaboration” or “nonsense?”

DeSantis’ endorsements apparently came as a surprise to some of the candidates he endorsed. That’s what Hillsborough County school board candidate Aly Legge told the Phoenix.

“I learned about it when everybody else learned about it,” said Legge, a candidate for a school board seat in Hillsborough County.  “I was very honored actually, and quite shocked. I think anyone would be. But definitely very honored and humbled.”

Hillsborough School Board candidate Aly Legge speaks at bill signing of HB 7 on April 22, 2022. Credit: Aly Legge’s campaign website.

Legge supports many of the main tenets that DeSantis has pushed for over the past couple years, such as so-called parental rights. She also mentioned pushing for “religious, medical and educational freedom,” as well as supporting students with special needs.

Notably, Legge was brought up as a guest speaker with DeSantis when he signed a controversial education bill in April — HB 7 Individual Freedom, often referred to as the “Stop WOKE Act,” which limits certain teachings regarding race and gender in school classrooms and in the workplace.

Legge called the endorsements a “collaborative effort” from the governor.

“I think what this is doing is reinforcing the need to have a collaborative effort, so our local representatives are supposed to work with our state representatives and they’re supposed to represent the people that hired them in the first place, to sit as representatives,” Legge said.

“So it is a collaborative effort to work with everybody, in order for us to truly represent the people who we’re aimed to serve. So I think that Ron — our Governor, Ron DeSantis, is making a collected effort to do just that.”

But for Jenkins, from Brevard, DeSantis’ endorsements are “nonsense.”

“Now this recent week, I feel like DeSantis has turned up the fire for that culture war conversation in public education — the nonsense of all-of-a-sudden he’s endorsing school board members, making a nonpartisan race very clearly partisan,” said Jenkins, whose school district is in Central Florida, on the Atlantic coast.

Jenkins noted that some legislators in the 2022 legislative session pushed a bill that would make school board elections partisan, but the bill never made it to the finish line.

“It didn’t happen, and I think this is kind of their way to get around that and beating around the bush. Because how much more obvious can you get? Getting an endorsement from Ron DeSantis — literally turning a nonpartisan race into a partisan race,'” Jenkins said.

School boards and the Florida Constitution

The DeSantis administration has a complicated relationship with school boards, and has bumped up against several school boards over COVID policies during the past two years.

In fall of 2021, several Florida school boards were at the center of a heated debate about who should decide whether students wore masks at schools during a spike in the COVID pandemic — locally elected education officials or the students’ parents.

The state Board of Education sided with parents, citing a Florida law called the Parents’ Bill of Rights, claiming it gives parents the right to direct the medical decisions and upbringing of their child.

But the Florida Constitution grants local school boards authority to “operate, supervise and control” schools within their district and several school districts imposed mask policies to protect students and staff from COVID-19.

Over the course of the pandemic, the DeSantis administration has been testing just how much authority school boards actually have, from reopening schools in 2020 to the mask policy debacle. Subsequent lawsuits between local school boards and state education officials on the matter have sided with DeSantis.

“I think it’s, ‘Rules for thee and not for me. If the playing field isn’t working for me, I bend it,'” Jenkins said of DeSantis’ challenge to school boards’ constitutional authority.

Brevard was one of the districts that pushed back against the DeSantis administration.

Jenkins gained national attention when she wrote an opinion piece published in October by the Washington Post, which outlined some of her experiences of protesters gathering in front of her house to call her a pedophile and burning “FU” on her yard with weed killer.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.