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Florida Republicans eye control of more county school boards in November election

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is backing his party's aim to win additional county school board seats in November. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Republicans have managed to increase their party's control over all but 12 of Florida’s 67 county school boards, according to a new analysis of election data. The GOP’s control has increased from 44 counties to 55 in just a few years.

Republicans are competing in November to pick up at least 23 more school board seats, which could give the GOP control over as many as five more school districts if their candidates are successful. The boards in play include those in Hillsborough (includes Tampa), Osceola (south of Orlando), Volusia (includes Daytona Beach), Jefferson (east of Tallahassee) and St. Lucie (on the Treasure Coast).

The expanding influence for conservatives over Florida's public schools has emboldened Republicans to soften vaccine requirements, rewrite policies affecting LGBTQ+ students and teachers, change rules for removing books from school libraries, weaken teachers' unions and direct what, and how, lessons can be taught in classrooms.

However, Democrats still wield influence on school boards in the largest cities representing the largest populations of school-aged children. But Republican gains in November could erode those margins.

The five counties in play have a combined enrollment of more than 340,000 students. Winning those seats would increase the share of students enrolled in GOP-controlled school districts from 60% to 73%.

The findings were uncovered during an analysis of hundreds of voter registration records, enrollment figures and election results for school board members, districts and contests going back to 2018.

Since 1998, Florida’s school board elections have been non-partisan. But when analyzing the political affiliation of Florida’s 357 school board members, just 17, or 4%, are registered with no party affiliation. 28% of registered voters in the state claim no party affiliation as well.

In 2018 registered Democrats held 139 of those 357 seats. By 2023 that number shrank to just 86, 39 of which are up for grabs this fall. In that same period, Republican representation jumped from 204 seats to 251.

In February 2023, Gov. Ron DeSantis revealed a list of school board members from around the state he wished to see defeated in this year’s election. Two of the targets sit on boards that could flip from blue to red.

In all, the list identifies 14 school board members from nine counties. Eight of those targeted are registered Democrats and four had either no party affiliation or were registered with an independent party. Two are registered Republicans.

Rick Lacey, the chairman for the Brevard County Republican Party called a return to partisan school board elections a natural evolution.

“People want to know ‘Well, what are you?’” he said. “If you say you’re [non-partisan], what does that mean? What side are you on?

“There is no such thing as a non-partisan school board election,” he said. “That’s a myth. Parties support candidates, and we noticed Democrats doing it before we started to.”

Lacey credited DeSantis with helping transform the school board from two Republicans to four in the 2022 election.

Jennifer Jenkins, the lone registered Democrat remaining on the Brevard County School Board, earned a spot on the governor’s list and won't be running for re-election. She called her addition to the list meaningless.

Last May, three members of the Republican majority voted to redraw district lines, removing Jenkins and a fourth Republican from the districts they represent.

“My entire term has been consumed by culture wars, attacking students and making unnecessary changes,” she said.

Of the four school board members unaffiliated with a major party targeted by DeSantis, two serve in Pinellas County. Laura Hine and Eileen Long are now being backed by Pinellas Democratic Party chair Jennifer Griffith.

“We’re ensuring we do not get someone supported by Moms for Liberty in our seat. Those school board members stood up for some serious stuff,” Griffith said.

Hine, who is running for her second term, assailed the idea of partisanship.

“I don’t believe in serving a party,” said district 1 member Laura Hine. “I believe in serving the county.”

Andrea Messina, CEO of the Florida School Board Association said, “We’re agnostic to party affiliation.”

At least one school board member who ended up on DeSantis’ list is concerned.

Jessica Vaughn, a non-partisan member of the Hillsborough board, said she upgraded her home security system for her personal safety.

Brian Barefoot, the second Republican targeted by DeSantis who resigned earlier this year, criticized the governor’s politicization of school board races and lamented his own party’s shift to the right.

“Those of us who grew up in the middle, we don’t seem to matter anymore,” Barefoot said.

Evan Power, the chair of the Florida Republican Party, offers no apologies.

“My philosophy as chairman is to fight in every county, and we’re going to fight in every county that we can win. I think after November we’re going to see more Republican wins around the state and on the school board level.”

Luis-Alfredo is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.
Kai is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.