Politics & Government

Big changes coming to Manatee’s school board elections

In this file photo from Sept. 4, 2018, the School Board of Manatee County approved a budget of $889.4 million for the 2018-2019 school year.
In this file photo from Sept. 4, 2018, the School Board of Manatee County approved a budget of $889.4 million for the 2018-2019 school year. gsabella@bradenton.com

The School Board of Manatee County is switching to a new election format after voters narrowly approved a referendum in Tuesday’s general election.

Residents narrowly approved the referendum with a vote of 51.4 percent. It asked whether the board should change to single-member representation, meaning board members will be elected by the district he or she represents, not by the entire county, starting in 2020.

As with the prior format, board members are required to live in the district they represent.

The board approved Resolution 2017-03 with a 3-2 vote last year, placing the referendum on Tuesday’s ballot. Gina Messenger and John Colon cast the dissenting votes.

In 2020, the District 1 seat held by Gina Messenger and District 3 seat held by Dave Miner will switch to the new election format, ensuring current members can finish their four-year terms.

Single-member elections will take effect for the District 2 seat held by Charlie Kennedy, District 4 seat held by Scott Hopes and District 5 seat held by James Golden in 2022.

Supporters of the single-member district argue that it removes barriers to running for office.

Theoretically, it’s much cheaper to campaign in one district as opposed to the entire county, and less money could mean less influence from special interest groups.

As of Nov. 1, Manatee’s two school board candidates had spent nearly $40,000 each on their countywide efforts.

The board’s resolution failed once, but former board member Karen Carpenter later changed her stance and revived the issue.

Opponents have said the change would lead to more bureaucracy and division. Perhaps the special interests would remain, and board members could lose sight of the county as they fight to represent their own districts.

“I’ll support the board’s decision if it passes, and I’ll happily accept whatever the voters decide, but my concerns still stand,” Messenger, now the vice-chair, said at a meeting in March 2017.

At the same meeting, Colon questioned whether the five-member board would become a seven-member board if the referendum passed. Single-member districts often have five district representatives and two at-large members who represent the entire county.

Tuesday’s referendum had no provisions for a larger board, but Colon felt it would be a natural progression.

“That is the next step, because then we’ll mirror the county commission, and we know how effective they can be,” he quipped.

Though diversity never entered the local conversation, single-member elections were historically used to combat discrimination and increase minority representation on school boards.

It seems especially helpful in communities where a large population of minorities is concentrated in one area. Such residents may find their needs are steamrolled by the interests of larger, countywide groups.

Researchers Carolyn Abott and Asya Magazinnik joined the decades-old debate with a report published in May 2017. They noted that past research was scattered, each focusing on unique districts and yielding different results.

Some reports said single-member representation helped minorities. Some researchers found little effect, while others discovered a negative outcome for minority candidates.

Abott and Magazinnik studied districts that were forced to move away from at-large representation, a result of lawsuits filed under California’s Voting Rights Act.

The result: Latino candidates fared better in California’s single-member school districts.

As discussed in Manatee County, their report also noted that single-member representation could eliminate the exorbitant cost of running for local office.

“To win the support of a subunit rather than the entire constituency, candidates for local office need not be well-resourced or politically connected if they are successful at mobilizing their communities and knocking on doors,” the report states.

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