Nation/World

DeSantis helped flip school boards. They’re now making their mark.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, pressing his education culture war, took the extraordinary step of endorsing school board candidates in nonpartisan races. Now the winners are beginning to make their mark.

Since Election Day, newly conservative school boards in two counties have moved to push out their superintendents. One approved a new restrictive policy regarding transgender students. Another school district terminated a contract with an LGBTQ+ youth network, and critics suspect the superintendent’s actions were influenced by her new board.

School board races in Florida are nominally nonpartisan, but DeSantis jumped into the fray and endorsed 30 candidates whom he said would carry conservative values into local districts. Moms for Liberty, a conservative parent group with similar goals, made an overlapping set of endorsements as well. In response, Florida Democrats and teachers unions endorsed some candidates on the other side, turning school board races in some communities into de facto partisan political contests.

DeSantis’s picks ran on the mantle of parents rights, which typically translates to fewer accommodations for transgender students, less conversation about race and racism in the classroom and heightened scrutiny of books with sexual or other controversial themes. Many conservatives in Florida and elsewhere were initially angry about covid-related policies in schools, but as those issues faded, these other cultural controversies have taken prominence.

In elections in August and November, almost all of DeSantis’s picks won, though in some cases the winners serve on boards that were already conservative. Still, in at least seven counties dotted along both coasts, conservatives took control of school boards that had been run by more liberal members.

In Sarasota County, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, three DeSantis-backed candidates won, giving conservatives a 4-1 majority on the school board, which moved quickly to fire Superintendent Brennan Asplen without cause.

Members gave few hints about why, though activists with the local Moms for Liberty group had raised questions about the district’s equity committee and leveled vague charges that Asplen was a tool of the political left. Some board members said student performance wasn’t high enough, though Asplen only arrived in August 2020.

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Asplen is now in negotiations over a separation agreement. At a special board meeting on his future Tuesday, he unloaded on critics, disclosing that he is personally a conservative Republican. He said he was more than happy to work with critics to improve the district. The problem, he said, was politics.

“You have to get the politics out of this school district. You have to,” he said. “I spend more time on politics and nonsense than anything else . . . It needs to end.”

Asplen also voiced frustration that critics had attacked a character education program, even though the district removed student surveys and a social emotional learning component, a once-unifying area that has been attacked on the right. He said that when he asked a school board member what the objection was, he was told to “Google it.”

“I said, ‘What?’ We vet these programs. Our people are highly experienced educators that vet these programs,” he said. “I ask you one simple question and all you say is ‘Google it.’ Well, that’s unacceptable to me.”

In Brevard County, on the other side of the state, conservatives won three school board races and now form a majority. They, too, moved to fire their superintendent, Mark Mullins, who has been with the district for nearly 30 years. He and the board are now negotiating a separation agreement.

The Brevard board also discussed changing the policy around removing challenged books from school libraries and altering membership of the committee that reviews challenges.

And the board directed the superintendent to restrict bathrooms and locker rooms to students of the same biological sex, barring transgender students from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity.

“It is about privacy,” said school board member Katye Campbell. “Having to change clothes in a locker room in front of students who are of the opposite biological sex is a problem. It also creates problems for our coaches and PE teachers who are having to supervise those locker rooms.”

Jennifer Jenkins, a liberal member of the Brevard board, countered by reading the names of 72 people she said were killed in anti-trans violence. “Imagine if they lived in a community more affirming, more accepting, more loving, if they’d still be here today,” she said. She also referenced the mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado. “Don’t be surprised when things like Colorado Springs happen. Don’t you dare be surprised.”

Further, Brevard board chair Matt Susin said he would call a special meeting to toughen discipline policies. Many districts have overhauled their policies to try to address disproportionate rates of discipline on students of color.

In contrast, Susin said, “We’re going to draft a policy that protects our teachers from violence.”

In Duval County, another place where conservatives took control of the school board, the superintendent announced the district would terminate its 20-year relationship with Jasmyn, a LGBTQ+ advocacy group, after a conservative news site drew attention to a sexually explicit Instagram post.

The post included images of penises and scrota. Jasmyn said it was aimed at young adults as part of its HIV prevention work.

Superintendent Diana Greene did not explicitly tie the decision to politics, though her email to principals suggested that by killing this alliance she might be able to save other LGBTQ+ initiatives, such as Gay-Straight Alliance groups.

“We must protect the continued good work of our schools and GSA clubs and the work they do each day to ensure our schools remain safe spaces for all students,” Greene wrote. A spokeswoman said the decision was not tied to the school board election results.

Elizabeth Anderson, who lost her school board reelection bid this year, said she has no doubt that Greene was reading the political tea leaves.

“She’s accountable to the board so she’s going to be conservative in her approach because she doesn’t want to lose her job,” she said.

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Anderson lost her race to April Carney, who campaigned against teaching of certain sex education lessons and critical race theory, a term that is shorthand on the right for discussions of race and racism.

“There’s a big push to completely oversexualize our children,” she said at a campaign event last year. “We need to be focusing on the core principles of education and not sex education and social justice.”

She also backed school choice programs to help families who want to leave the traditional public schools, as she said she had done with her children. Carney did not reply to requests for comment.

Other districts where conservatives took control include the state’s largest, Miami-Dade, as well as Indian River, Lee and Pinellas counties, thanks in part to DeSantis endorsements.

DeSantis has flexed his school board muscles in progressive Broward County, too. This summer, he removed four school board members after a grand jury report found they had acted with negligence and incompetence in implementing safety measures at county schools and recommended their dismissal.

He replaced them with four new members, including several who worked in Republican politics. The new board then fired the superintendent. Soon, though, the DeSantis appointees were replaced by more liberal members elected this year, and it’s possible the fired superintendent, who is still on the job, will be retained.

The conservative school board sweep was hardly statewide, said Joe Saunders, senior political director for Equality Florida, an LGBTQ advocacy group. He pointed to three Florida school boards flipped that from more conservative to more liberal - Osceola, Seminole and Flagler counties.

He also said school boards have a legal obligation to protect the rights of transgender students under federal law and that school boards that fail to do so will be open to lawsuits.

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“They don’t get to just do whatever they want,” he said.

DeSantis, who easily won his own reelection race, is expected to continue to push an education agenda in the Legislature next year, and on election night promised to continue fighting “woke in the schools.”

“Florida is where woke goes to die,” he said.

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