Will the Broward School Board fight the state on the trans issue? Likely not. Here’s why
Miami Herald | By Jimena Tavel, Ana Ceballos, and Sommer Brugal | November 30, 2023
Two years ago, when the Florida Legislature prohibited transgender female athletes from playing on girls teams, the Broward County Public School Board vocally opposed the law.
This week, however, the nine-member school board, which in the past has fearlessly fought Gov. Ron DeSantis on other issues, has been far more reserved, as the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act” comes into play in their own backyard — and in the state — for the first time.
On Monday, the school district announced it removed the principal and four other employees of Monarch High School after learning a transgender female student at the high school played volleyball with the female team during the fall season, violating state law. On Tuesday, the school board held a meeting but didn’t address the issue.
Board Members Sarah Leonardi and Vice Chair Debbie Hixon declined to comment Wednesday. Board Chair Lori Alhadeff didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Only Board Member Nora Rupert said in an emailed statement that she wants to give the school district’s Special Investigative Unit the time to investigate before she draws any conclusions.
“As a school district, it is important that we adhere to state laws while offering our students the support they need to succeed in school and in life,” Rupert said.
Back in 2021, though, those same members rallied around the cause.
“We’re not saying that we are going to subvert the Legislature or the governor. We’re saying we oppose this legislation that discriminates against children, and we are saying that we are in support of transgender students participating in athletics,” said Leonardi as she introduced the proclamation at that June 16, 2021 school board meeting, roughly two weeks after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act.
“I think that making that statement publicly as a board is very, very important,” she added.
Her colleagues — Alhadeff, Hixon and Rupert — cheered her along.
Alhadeff at the time said she specifically liked the last portion of the proclamation which states the board’s “support of transgender youth who deserve to live a life that is safe and free of discrimination of any kind.”
Rupert, too, said: “We’ve always supported our at-risk youth … and we will continue to support our students.”
WHY THE SILENCE?
The Florida Department of Education has said it expects “serious consequences for those responsible” for letting the Broward transgender female student play in the girl’s volleyball team. In a statement, the state agency reiterated that under DeSantis, “boys will never be allowed to play girls’ sports.”
In the past, the state has been more likely to punish local officials who defy DeSantis’ priorities, particularly on social issues that have fueled political culture wars. Since issuing the 2021 resolutions rebuking the state law, some of the Broward County school board members have left, but it hasn’t lost its left-leaning majority.
Regardless of the political makeup it’s not surprising to see a typically vocal board remain silent in such a situation, said John Bowen, a former school board lawyer in Florida.
For one, Bowen said “there is a pattern by the governor when someone is critical of him or his policies, he takes action to punish them. There’s a history there that would make you think that board members not commenting is because they’re afraid” of retaliation. Bowen pointed to the ongoing dispute between the governor and Disney over the company’s public opposition to the Parental Rights in Education law, nicknamed “don’t say gay” by Democrats and LGBTQ activists.
Locally, in Broward County, DeSantis in 2022 suspended four school board members that stood up to his no-mask mandates, and withheld more than $500,000 in state funds from the district over the same issue.
On the other hand, though, Bowen said “it’s not unusual for (members) not to comment” when they may wind up sitting as a quasi judicial body deciding the outcome of employment of those who are under investigation because it might suggest they already made up their mind before sitting as judges.
In his former role, he used to “always advise board members not to comment” on such scenarios. “You don’t want your school board members saying anything that might affect the outcome of a case,” said Bowen.
WHAT DO THE OTHER SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS THINK?
The five other school board members joined the board after the June 2021 resolution — Jeff Holness, Brenda Fam, Torey Alston, Daniel Foganholi and Allen Zeman.
Fam and Holness didn’t respond to requests for comment. Zeman, Alston and Foganholi said they plan to follow the law.
In an emailed statement, Alston described the allegation as “absolutely concerning.”
“Everyone will have due process but I will be crystal clear, I will 100% follow state law and proceed accordingly, if any issues are confirmed,” he wrote.
In his own emailed statement, Fogangoli thanked the district for “the swift response from the superintendent and staff in addressing a pressing issue.”
“While my personal belief may be that biological males should not participate in female sports, it is crucial to acknowledge that my opinion does not hold over legislation. The law dictates the rules, and Broward County Public Schools will dutifully adhere to it. As a board member it is my duty to prioritize the safety of ALL our students,” he said.
Zeman told the Herald he’s interested in the investigation results.
“And at the same time, I know that all of the government employees take an oath to follow the laws that are passed, and we don’t get to choose the laws that we follow,” he said.
DESANTIS’ VICTORY LAP?
DeSantis has not personally issued a statement on the Broward County issue, or its fallout, but he could during a Thursday night debate against California Gavin Newsom, where the Republican governor is expected to tout his conservative agenda in Florida.
In the last two years, DeSantis has made it a priority to bar transgender athletes from participating in girls’ and women’s sports, and made the issue a cornerstone issue during the presidential campaign.
DeSantis weighed in on a transgender female competing in women’s sports at a National Collegiate Athletic Association women’s swimming championship race in 2022.
DeSantis declared Florida resident Emma Weyant, who came in second place, the “rightful winner” over Lia Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania swimmer who came in first and became the first transgender athlete to win an NCAA championship.
The symbolic resolution was to show that in Florida, “we reject these lies,” DeSantis said. He also accused the NCAA of “making a mockery of its championships, and perpetuating a fraud.”