Gov. Ron DeSantis. Credit: Danielle J. Brown. Oct. 19, 2021.
In mid-February, a Republican lawmaker made a quick change to a piece of legislation: Allow Gov. Ron DeSantis to take control of Florida’s high school athletics association, an organization that had been independent for a century.
It wouldn’t be the first time DeSantis would take control over a state or local board, or another entity.
In fact, the takeovers are symptoms of a growing trend, as DeSantis, a Republican, increasingly wields his executive power to influence the boards in order to expedite his political goals and reshape Florida into a more conservative bent.
From athletics to medicine boards to Disney and local school boards, the controversial moves have prompted some critics to describe the governor as “fascist.” At the same time, the GOP-controlled Legislature and other allies are handing the reins to DeSantis.
Keep in mind, DeSantis and all Florida governors are required to make appointments to various boards as part of their duties.
But DeSantis’ approach is particularly extreme.
“It’s about consolidating power,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando, who has been critical over one of the most recent boards — related to Walt Disney World Co. In that case, all boards members were wiped out and replaced by DeSantis’ five new appointees, all with conservative connections.
“So, it’s not only about consolidating power, but it’s about controlling the narrative,” said Eskamani, who is a Democrat.
State Sen. Tina Polsky, a Democrat who represents part of Broward and Palm Beach County, said the state board takeovers are akin to “fascist regimes.”
“When you look to fascist regimes, it starts with beating down the press. Beating down academics. Excluding minorities. Targeting minorities – I think exactly what he’s (DeSantis) doing with the LGBTQ community fits into that. And with the Black community with AP African American studies,” Polsky told the Phoenix. “That’s how it starts. And you control all levels of government, and you ban books. And so that is how it starts, and to me, that’s what it looks like is going on right now.”
Here’s a rundown of some of the major board takeovers that have occurred within the last six months.
Total authority over boards
FHSAA board of directors
Founded in 1920, the Florida High School Athletics Association is currently “statutorily designated as the governing nonprofit organization for interscholastic athletics for grades 6 through 12 in Florida public schools,” according to legislative staff analysis.
The organization operates fairly autonomously, and board of director members are chosen through a “representative democracy.” The FHSAA is divvyed up into different state regions and the FHSAA picks their board of directors through an election process within each region. The Commissioner of Education, currently Manny Diaz Jr., also has a seat on the board of directors, and he gets to appoint three others, according to the staff analysis.
But one Florida lawmaker thinks that DeSantis, or a sitting governor, should make all the board appointments.
Sen. Rep. Fred Hawkins, a Republican who represents part of Orange and Seminole counties, is sponsoring a bill, HB 225, that would allow for other non-profit athletic associations to be recognized by the State Board of Education.
In mid-February, Hawkins tacked on a change in the bill language, called an amendment, which would reduce the current 16-person board of directors down to just nine members, all of whom would be appointed by the governor.
Meanwhile, the FHSAA has been recently scrutinized for considering a rule that would have required female high school athletes to provide information on their menstrual cycles, which included asking students when their most recent menstrual period occurred and how many periods the athlete has had over the past 12 months. After that backlash, the FHSAA ultimately removed the language.
It is not clear if the debacle around the questions on menstrual cycles was related to the new amendment that would let DeSantis appoint the FHSAA board of directors.
The Phoenix reached out to the FHSAA for comment and the nonprofit has not yet responded.
Disney oversight board
Monday, Gov. DeSantis signed legislation that gave him the power to appoint an entire oversight board for Disney’s Reedy Creek special taxing district in Central Florida. (The board also will get a name change.) This came out of legislation during a special session during early February which was also sponsored by Rep. Hawkins.
During the Monday bill signing, DeSantis announced his slate of five appointees, the Phoenix previously reported. Those appointees include Bridget Ziegler, a Sarasota County school board member and a co-founder of the conservative Moms for Liberty group. She is also the wife of the new chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
Rep. Eskamani tweeted Monday, saying, “today Governor DeSantis signed into law a bill that seals his hostile takeover of Reedy Creek.”
The battle between DeSantis and the The Walt Disney Co. started during the 2022 legislative session, after former Disney CEO Bob Chapek issued a statement opposing the state legislature’s passage of the controversial Parental Rights in Education Act, often derided as the Don’t Say Gay or Don’t Say Gay or Trans law. This law prohibits certain conversations about gender orientation or gender identity in Florida classrooms.
New boards lead to new politics
New College Board of Trustees
New College of Florida, a public liberal arts university in Sarasota, was largely considered progressive and alternative in Florida’s higher education sphere. That’s why DeSantis, back in December, appointed a half dozen Board of Trustees members for the college, many of whom are conservative-leaning appointments.
Included in DeSantis’ appointments for New College is conservative activist Christopher Rufo, who is largely credited for spearheading the campaign against so-called “critical race theory” as a talking point for Republicans, according to the New York Times.
Another appointee is Matthew Spalding, of Hillsdale College in Michigan. Members of DeSantis’s team have said that through the appointments, they intend to shape New College into the “Hillsdale of the South.”
Since then, the overhaul of the New College of Florida’s Board of Trustees is going into effect. The newly-minted board recently terminated the contract of the New College president and appointed Richard Corcoran as its leader. Corcoran was the former Florida Commissioner of Education, according to the Phoenix.
Andrew Gothard, president of the United Faculty of Florida, called the controversial New College Board of Trustees “extremist ideologues.”
“It’s not about ensuring free speech, it’s not about ensuring the free exchange of all ideas, it’s about forcing one ideological viewpoint onto everyone,” Gothard said. “And if you don’t like it, we’ll fire you. We’ll expel you. We’ll run you out.”
Some students at New College are fed up with the new leadership, forming an advocacy group called Save New College in protest of the new Board of Trustees and other concerns.
“Our coalition of New College of Florida students, alums and allies quickly sprang into action and joined forces to defend educational freedom amid a hostile takeover of the college’s new Board of Trustees appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis,” according to their website.
Students, faculty and alumni rallied Tuesday ahead of the Board of Trustees meeting, according to Save New College.
Later, the board voted to remove New College’s Office of Outreach and Inclusive Excellence, according to Zac Anderson of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, who tweeted Tuesday.
State boards of medicine
In mid-November, two state boards were considering new restrictions on transgender minors’ access to gender affirming care like hormone therapy and puberty blockers. The two agencies, the Board of Medicine and the Board of Osteopathic Medicine, initially disagreed on how it should be done.
The Board of Medicine wanted a complete ban on gender affirming care for transgender minors, while the Board of Osteopathic Medicine wanted to have an exception for osteopathic doctors to perform nonsurgical treatments for minors if they are enrolled in clinical trials at medical institutions.
Within the past two years, DeSantis has limited freedoms of transgender Floridians and students as part of his political brand, and he has come down hard on his disapproval to allow minors to receive gender affirming care.
Thus, he began to change the makeup of the two boards with new appointees.
Since December, DeSantis appointed four new members to the Osteopathic Medicine Board and two to the Board of Medicine, the Phoenix previously reported.
The decision to appoint new board members culminated on Feb. 10, when the Osteopathic board rescinded its previously proposed exception on the clinical trials, aligning with the Board of Medicine’s total prohibition on giving minors gender affirming care, the Phoenix reported.
Pinellas County Housing Authority
Pinellas County, in the Tampa Bay area, experienced a complete overhaul in the Housing Authority back in August, the Tampa Bay Times recently reported.
On Aug. 19, the then-sitting board with over 50 years of collective experience on the Pinellas County Housing Authority, was replaced by DeSantis without a clear reason, just as they were narrowing down a list of potential candidates for their new executive director, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
DeSantis brought in his own appointees, according to a press release from the governor’s office at the time. Then in November, the new board hired “Neil Brickfield, a former one-term Pinellas County commissioner best known for pushing to remove tooth-protecting fluoride from the drinking water supply,” according to the Tampa Bay Times.
Broward County School Board
At the tail end of August 2022, Gov. DeSantis removed four female Broward County school board members who were elected by Broward voters.
The school board members were removed allegedly due to incompetence, neglect of duty and misuse of authority, following the recommendations from a statewide grand jury related to the events of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School killings in February 2018, the Phoenix previously reported.
At the time, DeSantis appointed four men to replace the duly elected board members.
“He didn’t have to take it that far, by any stretch,” Sen. Polsky, whose district contains part of Broward County, told the Phoenix.
She continued: “But he used that opportunity to replace — he’s always hated the Broward County School Board, they opposed him on masks and they stand up for themselves. He hates our blue counties (meaning democratic leaning) down here. So he took an opportunity that he saw. So he replaced them with political people who don’t have educational backgrounds.”
Other avenues of influence
School board elections
Back in the fall of 2022, Florida geared up for the Nov. 8 elections, and DeSantis made the unprecedented move to endorse candidates for local school boards, which could sway the outcomes of school board elections.
“He doesn’t have control over the outcome, but at the same time, he has a lot of political muscle, and he has a lot of money,” Sen. Polsky, told the Phoenix. “And it’s to me so far beneath the role of a governor and I can’t imagine the governor’s ever done this before, you know, to go after races so publicly.”
Just recently, Fox News reported that DeSantis has his eyes set on more school board elections.
“The school board members DeSantis plans to target are from Brevard County, Duval County, Hillsborough County, Indian River County, Miami-Dade County, Pinellas County, Volusia County and Sarasota County,” Fox News reported last week.
AP African American studies
DeSantis is threatening to cut ties with the century-old nonprofit College Board, known for its Advanced Placement courses and the SAT college-entrance exam, potentially removing these options from Florida students altogether.
The rift between the DeSantis administration and the College Board started over a pilot AP African American studies course. The Florida Department of Education rejected the course, according to a letter sent to the College Board in mid-January, causing a nationwide outcry, protests and legal threats over concerns that the move diminishes the importance of Black history and Black culture.
DeSantis said during a February press conference that his administration is looking into alternative “providers” of a college entrance exam or college-level course that high school students can take to earn early college credits.
So not only would Florida students be unable to take AP African American studies, they may soon not get to take any AP courses at all, if DeSantis goes through with it.
The Miami-Herald earlier reported that one of these options that might be considered is known as the Classic Learning Test, which is currently not accepted by all colleges or universities.
According to the Classic Learning Test website, the partner colleges that accept the alternative test, “tend to be private, liberal arts, or faith-based colleges which share our mission to reconnect knowledge and virtue in the classroom.”
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