by Nicolas Tomboulides
In the year 2000, a 54-year-old congressman from Illinois defeated his 39-year-old primary challenger by a two-to-one margin. The incumbent outraised his opponent by $300,000. While 90 percent of voters had heard of the incumbent’s name before, only 11 percent knew of the challenger.
Now, this story wouldn’t be particularly remarkable if I didn’t tell you the name of that losing candidate. It was Barack Obama.
That’s right. The power of incumbency is real. And if the most charismatic politician in modern history couldn’t overcome it, what makes us think anyone else can?
The Florida Legislature is having its own debate right now over incumbency — not for Congress but our school boards. Namely, lawmakers are deciding whether to place a constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot to enact eight-year term limits for all school board members in Florida. Polls show that 82% of Florida voters back the measure, including 85 percent of Republicans, 80 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of independents.
Historically, school boards have never been thought of as political swamps, not like Congress at least. We instead picture parents, teachers and community leaders coming together to do what’s best for kids. Unfortunately, times have changed. School board members are indeed politicians and they need eight-year term limits.
School boards in Florida wield enormous power. They collectively spend over $22 billion each year and are entrusted with big responsibilities, like hiring and evaluating superintendents, setting priorities and keeping students safe. With that power comes potential for abuse.
In 2011, a Florida grand jury report on the Broward School Board found numerous examples of mismanagement, self-dealing and opportunities for corruption. The report directly linked these failures to board members’ zeal for getting re-elected.
“Why Board members are so keen on selecting contractors is obvious,” the grand jury found. “The ability to steer, or even to seem to have the ability to influence where millions of dollars in contracts go, is lifeblood to politicians.”
“Not surprisingly the most generous supporters to Board campaigns are contractors and their subcontractors, as well as their lobbyists, friends and families,” it added.
In 2016, the Orlando Sentinel reported that school board incumbents were raking in contributions from the construction industry while the school district was in the midst of a building boom.
These ties to special interests exist throughout Florida and make incumbents nearly unbeatable. In 2018, Florida school board members were harder to beat than U.S. senators. Eighty-five percent of school board incumbents on the ballot were re-elected. Just under half of them ran unopposed, a humiliating statistic for those who claim “elections are term limits.”
One factor turning Florida school board members from public servants to political animals is their pay. Unlike most states, where school board service is a public service, Florida pays all of its school board members for what is essentially a part-time job. In Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Orange Counties, the salary is $44,443 annually.
Eight-year term limits would derail this gravy train, dry up the well of special interest cash and make school board elections more competitive. It would also deliver more diversity and fresh ideas.
Governor DeSantis has endorsed the amendment, writing that “no elected office, whether federal or local, is ever better off when run by career politicians.”
He’s right. Since passing eight-year term limits on the legislature, Florida has been named the most fiscally healthy state in America. New research shows that term limits also create more opportunities for women in public service.
According to Samantha Pettey, professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, term limits on state legislatures led to a 33 percent increase in the emergence of female candidates. Nevada, a term limits state, just became the first state in America with a majority female legislature.
We already term limit our president, governor, cabinet, state legislature and countless local offices to eight years in office. Now is the time to adopt this same principle for school boards. If any school board members claim they need more time to learn their jobs than the leader of the free world, then they have no business running in the first place. An eight-year limit will give members the opportunity to change government before it changes them.
Nicolas Tomboulides is the Executive Director of U.S. Term Limits, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for term limits at all levels of government. He lives in Cocoa, Florida.