Novice school board hopefuls offer only anger

South Florida Sun-Sentinel | By Randy Schultz | July 19, 2022

Gov. Ron DeSantis wants his political foot soldiers to take over Florida school boards. He should have armed them with more than unfounded anger.

In recent days, the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board has interviewed most candidates in four Palm Beach County School Board races, three of which involve incumbents Marcia Andrews, Karen Brill and Erica Whitfield. The county Republican Party pledges to defeat all three in these supposedly nonpartisan elections.

According to the party’s website, “Parents must have the right to direct the education and upbringing of their children. Also, “Schools must be stopped from indoctrinating students in CRT-inspired ideology,” using shorthand for Critical Race Theory.

Challengers dutifully parroted those talking points. A couple of candidates described themselves as “just a mom” looking out for her kids.

These candidates are seriously angry. They were angry about the board’s mask mandate. Now they’re angry about supposed indoctrination.

The problem is, they would make terrible school board members.

Randy Schultz is a Sun Sentinel columnist. (Mike Slaughter / Sun Sentinel/South Florida Sun-Sentinel)

They know next to nothing about how Florida finances school districts. One candidate didn’t know the high schools in her district. They’re furious at an institution they apparently have taken little time to seriously study.

Frank Barbieri is the Palm Beach County School Board chairman. Before he ran the first time in 2010, he attended board meetings for six months. The Great Recession had left teachers without what Barbieri called “adequate support.”

Today those teachers are among the highest-paid in Florida. Like so many of his counterparts in Palm Beach and elsewhere, Barbieri ran for nonpartisan reasons. That’s why school board races have been nonpartisan. You often didn’t know which board members were Republicans or Democrats.

Not this year. DeSantis is personally endorsing Republicans in school board races throughout the state, though he hasn’t chosen anyone in Palm Beach County. In its embrace of ideology over competence, the local Republican Party donated $7,000 to Angelique Contreras, who is challenging Whitfield in District 4. Contreras attended the Jan. 6 rally that led to the violent, deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Whitfield has a child in the district and another on the way. Before running in 2014, she had worked for the district and the county health department. Her specialty was and remains children’s health — a nonpartisan issue if ever there was one.

Brill ran in 2010 after years of volunteer work on behalf of special needs children like her son, who is autistic. Nonpartisan. As for Andrews, she needed no orientation. She had been a teacher, assistant principal, principal and the district’s head recruiter. Again, non-partisan.

Based on our interviews, DeSantis-inspired candidates would try to compensate for a lack of knowledge by asking about what they consider controversial library books and perpetuating the myth that public education is hostile to parents. They will congratulate themselves for being “disruptive.”

Insurgent school board candidates have run before, but the motivations were different.

Three decades ago, the administration had badly mismanaged the school construction program that voters had approved in 1986. Reformers challenged the establishment and brought in a new superintendent. That was helpful disruption by people who were prepared to serve.

A background in education is not essential for board service. Tom Lynch, who owned an insurance agency, served eight productive years on the board, six as chairman. He used his business skills to upgrade the district’s financial and construction operations. While he was chairman, voters approved a sales tax increase for construction, the first since that disastrous 1986 program.

An oversight committee, another product of those earlier reformers, praised the district’s management of that money. In contrast to Broward, the Palm Beach district continues to build schools on time and on or under budget. That, too, was helpful disruption.

The pro-DeSantis candidates are not those kinds of reformers. They also argue weakly that the district is failing when no large Florida district has a better recent record. Palm Beach got an “A” for the last three years grades were awarded. Critics make credible points about that system, but Republicans designed it and have kept it.

Not long ago, such poorly prepared candidates would have had no chance. But DeSantis has made school board races all about politics — his politics. One hopes that Palm Beach County voters will see through it and care more about schools than school politics.

Randy Schultz is a Sun Sentinel columnist.

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