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Get the latest coverage of the 2022 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

A proposal would eliminate pay for Florida school board members while scrutinizing school books

 Rep. Sam Garrison, R-Fleming Island, answers questions about a gambling bill during a special legislative session on May 19, 2021.
Steve Cannon
Rep. Sam Garrison, R-Fleming Island, answers questions about a gambling bill during a special legislative session on May 19, 2021.

Republican state Rep. Sam Garrison says he'd use the money to screen school books harder. Opponents say good candidates won't run without pay.

A Northeast Florida lawmaker thinks school board members should serve without pay, and he would use the extra money to increase oversight of what books end up on school shelves.

The bill from Republican state Rep. Sam Garrison of Fleming Island got its first stamp of approval from a House committee Thursday — as critics suggested it could lead to less qualified governance of schools and possible censorship of school materials.

Garrison introduced a bill last year to wipe out school board pay, but it died in committee. This time around, Garrison is taking a different approach: linking school board pay with what books are allowed in schools.

According to a 2018 National School Board Association study, 61% of school board members nationwide are volunteers.

“The salaries that were going to school board politicians can now go to media specialists,” Garrison told the House Education and Employment committee Thursday, before the committee approved the bill 13-7.

The bill would require school districts to hire media specialists who would have to sign off on any book or piece of material in a school library or classroom booklist. The specialists also would have to complete training with the state’s Department of Education about how to pick books.

Also under the proposal, school districts would have to hold board meetings with public comment before selecting any books and materials, and create a searchable database of all materials used in schools.

The president of Clay County Education Association, first grade teacher Vicki Kidwell, said there are already clear procedures for screening teaching material.

"Some of the things that they've added in here are just a lot of extra hoops for this district to go through," Kidwell said. "It feels like it's about control."

The proposed law comes just weeks after the Clay County School District removed the Black queer memoir "All Boys Aren’t Blue" from its shelves, after the Ridgeview High School principal filed a complaint.

The book was put up for review to a curriculum council that voted to remove the book and replace it with "The Black Flamingo" by Dean Atta.

"All Boys Aren’t Blue" was removed from Flagler County bookshelves last year, sparking debate over censoring the stories of underrepresented groups in schools.

Under Garrison’s bill, any new book could face additional public scrutiny before a teacher or librarian could purchase it.

Part of the funding for these extra requirements would come from what has been allocated to school board member pay, which Garrison said he believes makes the position too "political."

“We want to make sure our schools are focused on parental engagement and parental involvement by eliminating, quite frankly, the financial incentive for politicians to want to use this as an opportunity,” Garrison said.

His Democratic counterparts say the proposal would have the opposite effect: It would discourage Florida parents who can’t afford to work for free from running for school board.

"I don't assume my colleagues are trying to boost to another position; why are we assuming that of school board members?" Democratic state Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando said.

Currently, school board salaries are based on a formula that includes county populations. They range this year from $26,965 in Liberty County to $47,189 in Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach counties, according to a House staff analysis.

According to Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Board Association, linking state goals with local school board members' pay is not new.

“What we saw with the linkage is that if there are problems with library books then salaries would be affected. We certainly saw that this year when the governor withheld salaries of some school boards who were doing the mask mandate,” Messina said. “We knew that that was a tactic that was on the table.”

She said her organization plans to meet with Garrison and other representatives in the coming weeks to advocate for keeping school board members' pay.

The bill is now heading to the House Appropriations Committee to work out the costs of Garrison’s proposals.

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report.

Copyright 2022 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Claire Heddles
Claire joined WJCT as a reporter in August 2021. She was previously the local host of NPR's Morning Edition at WUOT in Knoxville, Tennessee. During her time in East Tennessee, her coverage of the COVID pandemic earned a Public Media Journalists’ Association award for investigative reporting.