Future school board elections in Manatee County may look very different, pending the outcome of a discussion set to begin Tuesday.
The School Board of Manatee County plans to debate shifting from at-large elections to single-member district elections — a move motivated by a desire to limit the influence of special-interest groups and outside money, says Manatee County School Board Chairman Charlie Kennedy.
Under the current structure, the five board members are elected in an at-large, county-wide election and represent the entire district rather than the specific areas where they live.
School board is supposed to be grass-roots, entry-level political office, but what we've seen is school board races are becoming big money. In some races they are becoming partisan even though they are non-partisan seats and non-partisan races.
- Manatee County School Board Chairman Charlie Kennedy
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Kennedy said if board members are elected by and represent their home-district residents, campaigning for office would be cheaper and less susceptible to outside money.
“School board is supposed to be grass-roots, entry-level political office, but what we’ve seen is school board races are becoming big money,” Kennedy said. “In some races, they are becoming partisan even though they are nonpartisan seats and nonpartisan races.”
Kennedy pointed to the 2014 battle between Ken Marsh and Bridget Ziegler for the Sarasota County School Board as an example of campaigns heavily funded by outside special-interest groups. Ziegler was backed heavily by statewide organizations advocating for school-choice programs, and she defeated Marsh by roughly 2 percentage points.
But advocates for at-large elections say they give individual voters more in the overall makeup of the board. Voters in at-large elections cast votes for every seat open, not just in the district where they live.
This is not the first time the board has contemplated shifting the way its members are elected.
In 2015, the board approved an initial motion to move to a seven-member board, composed of five single-district representatives and two at-large representatives, according to school board minutes. However, that language was removed from the bylaws the board approved later that year, keeping the five-member at-large election structure in place.
Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett said the board would have to hold a referendum to make the change.
Kennedy said the board would likely want to wait until an election was already being held to place the item on the ballot to avoid spending school board money on a special election.
If I only had to campaign in my little district it would not be very expensive. I wouldn't have to use lots of heavy-duty media — I'd have to use shoe leather. I think there would be less ability for outside money to control the district.
- Board member Karen Carpenter
Board member Gina Messenger said she was still making up her mind on the issue, while board member Karen Carpenter said the issue warrants “vigorous discussion.” Carpenter said she would rather see the board parallel the county commission, with a seven-member body composed of five numbered district representatives and two at-large representatives. She agrees with Kennedy that numbered districts could reduce the potential for outside influence.
“I think the lobbyists and the donors, if they wanted to control the school board, would have a lot harder time with local numbered districts,” Carpenter said. “If I only had to campaign in my little district it would not be very expensive. I wouldn’t have to use lots of heavy-duty media — I’d have to use shoe leather. I think there would be less ability for outside money to control the district.”
Board members John Colon and Dave Miner did not return calls requesting comment.