Book selection

School Board Term Limits and Book Choice Passes Bill

School board members could soon be limited to 12-year terms under a bill aimed at Gov. Ron DeSantis – but the measure also includes a controversial provision that would step up scrutiny of school library books and teaching materials.

The Florida House on Thursday passed the bill (HB 1467) in a 79-41 vote nearly in the party direction, putting it in a position to go to DeSantis. Representative Andrew Learned, D-Brandon, voted with Republicans for the proposal.

Earlier Thursday, the Senate approved a version of the bill that included a 12-year term limit for school board members and returned the proposal to the House. Last month, the House approved a version that would have imposed an eight-year term limit.

House Speaker Chris Sprows, R-Palm Harbor, recently told reporters he would support the expanded cap.

“Look, I’m a term limit guy. I believe in term limits. I think it works for us (state legislators). I think it would work for school boards. Would I rather have eight? Sure. Would I support 12? Yes,” Sprows said on March 2.

House bill sponsor Sam Garrison, R-Fleming Island, said Thursday the House had compromised by agreeing to longer terms for school board members.

“The Senate, in his opinion, feels that 12 is the number he wants. Thanks to our discussions with them, I think that at this late stage I will not run the risk of recommending that my colleagues leave with nothing. Sometimes you have to take the basket instead of going for the touchdown…to get points on the board,” he said.

But House Democrats opposed the 12-year term limit.

Rep. Susan Valdes, a Tampa Democrat and former Hillsborough County school board member, said the bill is a step toward “devaluing” the work of school boards.

“It was a lot of work. It’s not just about coming here (for) 60 days, going home and going about your business,” Valdes said, referring to the annual 60-day legislative session for state lawmakers. “No. It’s 24/7. It’s 365 days a year. Even during spring break…school board members get phone calls, school board members have issues that they need to deal with.

Lawmakers have considered imposing term limits on board members in previous years, but have never passed a bill that would impose a cap on the length of members’ terms.

Part of this year’s proposal that has generated far more controversy than term limits is to give parents and members of the public greater access to the selection and removal process for school library books and educational materials.

For example, committees that meet for the purpose of making recommendations to school boards on the “ranking, disposal, or selection” of instructional materials would be required to include parents of students in a school district.

School boards would also be required to post their procedures for establishing media centers on the websites of individual schools in a district. Similarly, elementary schools should post on their website a list of any media center materials or books required as part of a reading list.

The bill allows school districts to remove or discontinue school materials “upon an objection” under procedures outlined in the measure. The state Department of Education would be responsible for distributing a list of retired school materials to other school districts in the state.

Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, expressed concern about letting any member of the public have influence over material students might encounter in class.

“It’s really weird to me that we’re allowing people across the country to be able to make suggestions on how we can censor and restrict books,” Nixon said.

But Garrison argued that the measure does not change current law regarding the ability of the public to comment on textbooks.

“This bill does not change one iota, not one point, of the current law as to who can come to and complain to a school board,” Garrison said.

Learned, the only House Democrat to vote for the bill, praised the “transparency” the proposal would bring.

“Ultimately what this bill does is create transparency for our parents. And I’m okay with that,” Learned said.

According to the proposal, procedures adopted by school boards for building media center collections should provide for the “regular removal or abandonment” of books based on factors such as alignment with state academic standards and relevance to the program.

Senate Democrats also criticized parts of the bill that would step up textbook scrutiny.

“Why are we doing this? I feel like I have a lot of questions these days. In the age of the internet, where endless information is literally a keystroke away, a click away, do we really want join dictators around the world and allow the banning and possibly the burning of books?” Polled Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation.

But Senate bill sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, defended the measure ahead of Thursday’s vote 24-15 along party lines.

“Local communities should have the right to know and provide feedback on the material their schools put in front of our children,” said Gruters, who is also chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.