Florida voters will get to decide on partisan school board elections on 2024 ballot

The Florida Senate on Wednesday gave final approval to a proposed constitutional amendment that seeks to shift to holding partisan school-board elections.

The proposal (HJR 31) will go on the 2024 ballot and, if approved by voters, would do away with a requirement that school-board candidates run without party labels. Partisan elections could begin in 2026.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted 29-11 to approve the proposal (HJR 31), with Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, the only Democrat supporting it. The House passed the measure along straight party lines last month.

Opponents argued the state shouldn’t politicize school-board elections.

"I’m just not in favor of even going down a road to start politicizing school board races. And if we’re all honest, we know what happens when we politicize things. We begin to make decisions based on party, instead of focusing on people," Sen. Rosalind Osgood, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat and former Broward County School Board member, said.

But Senate sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, called the measure a move toward "full-transparency elections" during discussion on the Senate floor Tuesday.

"Parties engage in these races. There’s no such thing as a non-partisan race anymore. These races are partisan, and the only ones that aren’t informed are being tricked," Gruters, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said. "And what happens is, there are games that are played all the time in these races. And what I’m trying to do is pull the bag off of the voters’ heads."

Florida historically had partisan school-board elections, but voters passed a constitutional amendment in 1998 to make the races non-partisan. Lawmakers moved forward with the possibility of returning to partisan races after Gov. Ron DeSantis last year took the unusual step of getting heavily involved in supporting conservative school-board candidates in various areas of the state.

The proposal would need support from 60 percent of voters next year to pass.

Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, said Florida would be in a minority if it makes school-board races partisan.

"This is not something that’s being done nationwide. If you look nationwide, most school-board races and school boards remain non-partisan," Powell said. "I am hopeful that what happens with regard to partisan politics does not bleed into our school-board races."

The Legislature this year is considering other changes related to school boards, including bills (HB 477 and SB 1110) that would impose eight-year term limits on board members. Other proposals seek to change a requirement that school-board candidates have to live in the districts they are seeking to represent at the time they qualify to run. Those bills (SB 444 and HB 411) would require candidates to live in the districts at the time they assume office.