The advantages of electing members of the School Board of Manatee County by individual districts rather than countywide make the possible change appealing. On Tuesday the board will open the debate on this significant shift, one that guarantees a different political landscape.
In asserting that school board races now command “big money,” School Board Chairman Charlie Kennedy aims to curb the outsized influence of amply bankrolled special-interest groups and outside money on political contests, he told Herald educator reporter Ryan McKinnon for an advance article about Tuesday’s board agenda item.
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.
School board member Karen Carpenter
Currently, the five board members officially represent the entire school district but must live in specific districts. All county voters have the opportunity to cast their ballots for each board candidate in an election. But restricting elections to individual districts would inarguably lower the cost of campaigning for candidates. At the same time, district elections would reduce voter clout.
Still, candidates would not need large war chests, though campaign donors could still supply generous donations. Kennedy accurately states that candidates would only be less susceptible to outside money — but not completely.
But, board member Karen Carpenter states, “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.”
Under a single district structure, Carpenter said she would no longer need to buy exposure in “lots of heavy-duty media,” instead turning to an old-fashioned but still effective “shoe leather” campaign. Voters would benefit from direct and individual encounters with candidates.
But on the downside, a self-serving agenda by a large and influential group of voters living within a district could conceivably control the outcome of a board contest and even hand-pick a candidate and campaign for that individual.
Board candidates, while mostly connected to a political party, are elected in nonpartisan races — as are all school board elections in Florida. But Kennedy claims that in some instances, contests are becoming partisan. That is deplorable as board members should represent parents and children and not a political agenda.
But Kennedy cited the highly political 2014 board race in Sarasota between Ken Marsh and Bridget Ziegler as an example of partisanship — with buckets of money from an outside special-interest group supporting a specific agenda. A statewide organization promoting school-choice programs pumped money into Ziegler’s campaign, and she won by a mere 2 percentage points. Without all that financial support, would Ziegler have lost? While debatable, that’s a reasonable conclusion.
In 43 of Florida’s 67 school districts, board members are elected at-large (countywide). But in 21 districts, school boards are elected by a vote of the electors within their residence area (single-member district election). Interestingly, the remaining four districts combine the two, with some district board members and some at-large.
The Manatee County School Board flirted with the combined approach in 2015, going so far as to approve an initial motion to shift to a seven-member board with five single-district representatives and two at-large — mirroring the Board of Manatee County Commissioners. But later that year, the school board erased the language from bylaws and retained the current system.
Even with county commission contests in single-member districts, though, candidates come under public fire for the large campaign contributions from powerful interests, primarily developers and builders. Some voters claim once elected, these candidates are beholden to those interests and vote their approval on measures that pay off for those businesses.
We don’t buy that accusation as almost all politicians must solicit campaign contributions and support in order to wage a campaign. Only those with deep bank accounts can afford to self-finance a campaign, which would then result in lopsided representation by the affluent. The cynical view that candidates sell their souls to get elected and lack any integrity has proven true in isolated cases, but overall the notion undermines our democracy.
Carpenter would like to see the idea of a seven-member school board resurrected. That shakeup is also worthy of discussion Tuesday. She awaits a “vigorous discussion” of the issues during that meeting. Stakeholders may want to weigh in during the public comment period.
This Editorial Board supports change, either to five single-district board members or seven with two at-large.