Florida Today | By Ralph Chapoco | April 26, 2022
The Brevard Public School Board should be elected by voters across the entire county rather than in five single-district seats, according to a proposal put forward to the Charter Review Commission.
Public Defender Blaise Trettis’ proposal is his second directed at the Brevard school board. Trettis’ earlier recommendation would allow for the recall of school board members.
The Charter Review Commission is made up of 15 members, three are appointed by each commissioner. The body meets every six years and decides on proposals to change the county’s charter. Recommendations are sent for approval to a three-attorney panel before going to the county commission and eventually to the voters in November.
The proposals around the school board have become contentious, with parties on opposing sides making impassioned speeches before the Charter Review Commission.
Proponents of the measure to enable school board members to be recalled point to the mask mandate as a reason. Opponents argue the public already has a tool for recalling elected officials — the next election.
According to the commission agenda report, Trettis suggests eliminating Article 8 and Section 8.1 of the charter indicating that school board members be elected by single member districts. School board members have been elected in single-member districts since 1998 when the measure was included as part of the charter. The public voted in favor of it 58% to 41%.
Trettis argues however, that the amendment allowing for single-member districts was inconsistent with existing state law when it was approved back in 1998. At that time, state statute stated that “The election of members of the school board shall be by vote of the qualified electors of the entire district,” according to materials Trettis provided the committee.
The school district is county-wide, so school board members should be elected by the entire county.
There are only two conditions that allow for single-member district elections: if the school district adopts a formal resolution calling for it and that’s approved by ballot, or if the public proposes it by petition.
Neither was done in Brevard County to allow for that.
“Florida statutes have never authorized charter counties to create single-member school board elections by residence area by amendment of the county charter,” Trettis wrote.
Trettis also argues the state has preempted the issue because it has already outlined the two ways that a school may host single-member district elections.
Charter Commission counsel Paul Gougelman supports Trettis’ position, declaring that single-member districts are inconsistent with state law.
How are Brevard School Board members elected?
Changing the rules would allow the voters in the entire county to elect board members to Brevard Public Schools. That creates a much different dynamic. Republicans currently fill every countywide seat in Brevard. Countywide, there are 191,689 registered Republicans compared to 130,925 registered Democrats. Those not affiliated with any party count 118,694, according to data on the Supervisor of Elections site.
School board elections are non-partisan but school boards have increasingly found themselves at the front line of polarizing issues. So party leaders are paying close attention and focusing energy on these races. For example, Governor Ron DeSantis has said he plans to play a role in school board races this election cycle.
Christopher Muro, an associate professor of political science at Eastern Florida State College, thinks the motivation for the change is part of the current culture war taking place in schools around the nation.
“It seems to me from reading all the text surrounding the proposal, all the commentary that went along with it, it seems pretty clear the goals here were to stop the woke agenda, stop critical race theory, gender ideology, and all these issues that are now front and center, in the renewed culture war,” he said.
He also cautions that turning a single-district seat into a countywide seat can lesson accountability.
“As the pool of voters grow, the value of the individual vote diminishes,” Muro said. “That means the accountability of the elected official also diminishes.”
That could allow the candidate to disengage with a portion of the electorate with different views, Muro said. There’s also an increase cost to running in a countywide race.
“Brevard is a pretty large county,” Muro said. “It is going to cost three, four, five times as much to run a successful campaign.”
As candidates’ financing needs increase, it makes it less likely to operate a campaign based on donations from individual donors. They will have to rely more on organizations and special interest groups to help with bankrolling their campaigns, Muro said.
Reaction for the proposal appears mixed.
“When you can elect each school board member countywide, there’s more cooperation on the board and less politics,” said Sara Mirsky, who attended the meeting and spoke during public comments. “This current school board, there’s way too many political divides on this current school board, and they really need to function to work together.”
Brevard County Chair Pamela Castellana disagrees.
“You are going to have the only people that run for school board are the people that have money and means, who generally don’t live in the more rural areas of our county,” she said. “Those areas won’t be served.”