Position on Appointed School Board
Many people have been asking my position regarding changing Duval County’s elected School Board to an appointed one. First, my position is that no currently elected office should be taken from a vote of the people without the direct consent of the people through popular vote via referendum. Ultimately, it is the decision of the people, and only theirs to make.
Unlike many counties in Florida, Duval is a “Charter Government.” The charter being an organizing and governing document much like the constitution for a state, but on the city/county level. What gives our charter unique power is it is codified in the Florida Constitution – this grants the city certain rule making powers that exceed statutory and administrative law set by state agencies and the legislature. This charter can additionally govern state constitutional elements where the question is not specific to, or cannot be superseded by the state constitution. This fact was made evident in the 2012 Florida Supreme Court decision: William Telli vs Broward County. There, the court receded from Henry Cook vs City of Jacksonville, and effectively applied voter approved term limits to state constitutional officers in Duval. This legal precedent clearly defines the possibilities and extent of power a Florida County government may have to self-rule through its charter. But, it does not answer definitively if Duval can use a voter approved referendum to create an appointed school board.
The state constitutional concerns of appointing a school board would most likely run into the specificity and letter of the constitution that says school boards shall be chosen by vote: “In each school district there shall be a school board composed of five or more members chosen by vote of the electors in a nonpartisan election for appropriately staggered terms of four years, as provided by law.” In the supreme court’s decisions to recede Cook vs City of Jacksonville, a key element was that the state constitution was “silent” on the questions of term limits imposed by Duval’s electorate. As such, the charter was viewed as creating a valid rule. The constitution goes on to add provisions around the selection of an elected or appointed school superintendent. Florida has a mix of counties with appointed versus elected superintendents and the constitution is specific as to the local option process for changing from an elected superintendent to an appointed one. The level of specificity in each of these sections would add weight to arguments that an appointed school board is not a legally viable option through charter amendment. However, it does not appear that this specific legal question has been heard and answered by the judiciary. As such, an appointed school board is a possibility but would likely result in legal challenges ultimately decided by the Florida Supreme Court. This is an obvious concern and begs the question as to other options.
Outside of amending the Duval Charter, there is the option of seeking a bill and statutory addition thought action of the Florida Legislature. This, too, is problematic as it runs directly into the superseding authority of the Florida Constitution. What’s more, the legislature may be less empowered than the Consolidated City of Jacksonville to provide a remedy, as the county is granted certain powers of self-rule through its charter that are unique. The clearest solution would be a statewide constitutional amendment passed by vote of the electorate that would allow the citizens of each county to choose an elected or appointed school board much like the current practice for superintendents. All of this is somewhat academic as there would be a general public resistance to divesting power in the electorate and moving this power to a less direct center of decision making. However, it has happened from time-to-time with the question of appointed superintendents where the electorate has ceded their power to an elected school board.
Public consumption of the idea of an appointed board would need resolution of two key points. First, school boards have taxing authority. Appointed officials having significant taxing authority is not common on the level seen with district school boards. A remedy would need to be considered such as an elected element of the consolidated city government, possibly the City Council, having approval power over new taxes levied by an appointed board. Next, of substantial concern would be the appointment process, itself. The size and diversity of Duval County would make this an incredibly challenging solution and would necessitate a process that was both fair and equitable, but more importantly, accepted by the citizens. All of this assumes that an appointed board is deemed more effective than a typical elected board.
Clearly, there needs to be reform in how school boards are structured and the personalities that seek out and are elected to the position. If you consider the Duval County School Board runs a $1.7 billion organization with over 12,000 employees, the task is at the highest level of challenge and should require the highest level of executive capability and experience. Notably, it is common that Duval County appoints a Superintendent with significant credentials and academic attainment at the Doctorial level. Yet, it is rare that school board members (including myself) are at this same level. This creates an environment that is primed for conflict as is evident by decades of struggle with our local school boards. A difficult job that is often underestimated, the challenge of school board leadership was made evident in this comment from former President Jimmy Carter in 1980: “When I first got on the local school board, which is the most difficult political job I ever had, counting President—tough job; pray for the school board members, everybody . . .” It is important to consider President Carter served in Sumter County, Georgia with a student population approximately the size of only one of Jacksonville’s largest high schools.
There are school board reform alternatives that could be realized via modifications in the Duval County Charter and popular referendum. These could include actions defining and clarifying the statutory authority of the elected school board vs. the appointed superintendent. It is a point of law that an appointed superintendent has the same statutory authority as an elected superintendent. However, the ability of an appointed superintendent to be terminated by a school board at virtually any time puts a chilling effect on superintendents in forcing their statutory authority. The result is board member intrusion into the admirative role and disempowerment of the superintendent. Specific charter language may be a method to ameliorate this problem.
There is also the elected makeup of the board itself that could be modified to increase effectiveness. The constitution clearly states we must have a minimum of five elected board members, we currently have seven, but is that the optimal number? While some have suggested Jacksonville’s city council of 19 is too large, there is no denying the large number brings a more defined and intimate local representation of each district and builds on the concept of diversity. As school board members are elected by geographic district, but represent the citizens city-wide, it may also be a consideration to have board members elected in citywide votes (at large) to better align accountability with the actual charge of representation.
Some boards have moved to a model where the board chairman is an elected county-wide position. Electing a vice-chair and chairman, city wide, could be a positive move in minimizing the intramural conflict over school board officer elections that is now an annual event. It is important to note, counties with an elected chairman, such as Orange County, Florida, have made this modification through their local county charter. Showing the power of charter rule, the selection of chair in these counties legally supersedes the specific rule of law in state statute.
Today, the Jacksonville Charter is woefully out of date regarding the current function of the school district. There are still elements in the charter that date back many decades where the City Council has jurisdiction over school board member salaries and setting the annual school calendar. These are in the charter – have the full effect of law – but are not used in practice. Most council members are not even aware this language is in the charter. The current school board has been made aware of these defects in the charter, but has recoiled from addressing them – some expressing fear that opening the charter revision process may facilitate moving to an appointed board.
In conclusion, the need to reform the institution of the Duval County School Board is apparent. The Charter revision process is both a legal and practical way to institute reforms. In regards to this matter, the question of where the furthest boundaries of the Charter’s power extend (appointed board example) has not been clearly defined, and may only be found through initiating the process of referendum and defending the inevitable legal challenges as they emerge. The result would be years of time passed before coming to final clarity. Simple reforms, such as modifying board member districts, election of officers, and governance are likely more attainable reforms though the Charter and can be realized in a much shorter timeframe.