School board elections become ground zero for ideological fights
ABC Action News | By Paul LaGrone | Updated August 16, 2022
TAMPA, Fla. — As primary election season comes to a crescendo on August 23, one of the areas that are as hot as the summer air in Florida are the school board races.
It all started during the pandemic as some parents began to make moves against their local school board decisions, including virtual schooling, vaccinations, etc.
“What we saw during the pandemic is, nationwide, people saw how far they were over-stepping,” said Tina Descovich, co-founder of “Moms for Liberty.” “And so, Tiffany (Justice) and I saw the landscape of the land and said we can help them. We understand what the problem is and what the process is, and how to help them find their voice. So that’s why ‘Mom’s for Liberty’ was launched.”
Tina Descovich is not just the co-founder of “Mom’s for Liberty,” she’s also a former school board member in Brevard County. During an interview with ABC Action News, Descovich said she feels like there should be a parent’s voice on the school board.
“It’s time for parents to take their seat back at the table when it comes to driving education and decisions for your children,” Descovich said.
That voice has turned into a roar as Moms for Liberty has grown into a national organization with chapters all over the country. In July, the group held a summit in Tampa attracting hundreds of supporters, including Governor Ron DeSantis. His political committee is spending money endorsing board members.
When asked during an interview with ABC Action News, Descovich said there are many misconceptions about Moms for Liberty, including that they are a political organization that is driven by the GOP and that they get their funds from dark money.
“Our 990 is about to come out, and people are going to see $150,000 on t-shirt sales. No media wants to believe that when I tell them, but they will see it. Small donors, 5,000 small donors came in one weekend. I’m talking under $25 a person,” explained Descovich.
ABC Action News followed the money, and it is tricky because Moms for Liberty is listed as a nonprofit, which means they don’t have to disclose where they are getting their money. We dug through campaign finance records, tracking down some of the money that is financing what’s becoming a major force in education politics.
According to the Florida Division of Elections, Moms for Liberty Florida, which is a separate entity and a Political Action Committee or PAC, raised nearly $51,000. Nearly every penny came from Publix Heiress Jullie Fancelli, who donated $50,000 on June 23.
Then in a 24-hour span between July 11-12, Moms for Liberty cut campaign checks, nearly $9,000 worth, to school board candidates all over the state of Florida. Among those candidates who received money is Aly Legge, who is running for school board District 6 in Hillsborough County. She was also recently endorsed by Ron DeSantis.
Dawn Peters, who is running for the school board in District 3 in Pinellas, also received money. Bridget Ziegler, who is running for re-election to the school board in Sarasota County, District 1, also pulled in Moms for Liberty funds. Ziegler’s husband, Christian, is vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida.
Moms for Liberty also gets money by hosting fundraisers. In June 2021, the group held a convention with conservative celebrities, including former Fox news host Megyn Kelly. They also held a fundraiser at the Radisson Resort in Cape Canaveral called “Fearless: An Evening with Megyn Kelly—the former Fox News host.”
General admission tickets for the event started at $50. A Copper Sponsor for $1,000 got you VIP tickets to the cocktail reception, while a Bronze Sponsor for $2,000 bought you a meet and greet with Megyn Kelly. And for $20,000, you were a Presenting Sponsor and got to address the audience for three minutes.
For Descovich, she said that Moms for Liberty isn’t to blame for the recent hyper-politicization of school board races.
“I think it’s getting more politicized. People like to blame that on ‘Moms for Liberty,’ and that’s not the case,” Descovich said. “‘Moms for Liberty’ is just waking people up to how much politicizing has been happening in the schools for a long time.”
Descovich also said she is willing and has worked with some who have an entirely different perspective on education and that the important thing is to put children first.
One of the groups opposing Moms for Liberty is another nonprofit called Support Our Schools. They are running their own candidates. Lisa Schurr is one of the co-founders and said the two groups agree that parents have a right to determine the education of their children, but the big issue that she has is that certain groups of parents want to determine how their child is educated.
“I’m a parent. I have a child in the school system. I have rights as well. Doing things like taking away civil and human rights of our LGBTQ student, not allowing the history of people of color or indigenous people, not allowing that to be taught in our schools is taking away the rights of parents,” explained Schurr.
Hillsborough County Superintendent Addison Davis, who’s battling a teacher shortage and a budget shortfall, said his focus is not on politics.
“At the end of the day, everyone has learners who are in education, so we tip our hat to those who want to be actively involved. But we’ve always, in Hillsborough County, connected with our parents. They are in the forefront of being a partner in this work,” said Addison Davis.
Work that, for now, is playing out not just in the classroom but also in the war rooms of school board candidates.