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

Florida lawmakers set term limits for school board members and empower parents on book choices

blurred rows of library shelves with books
The measure headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis' desk includes a provision that would intensify scrutiny of school library books and instructional materials.

In addition to the term limits, the bill headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis gives parents and members of the public increased access to the process of selecting and removing school library books and instructional materials.

School board members soon could be limited to serving 12-year terms under a bill that is headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis — but the measure also includes a controversial provision that would intensify scrutiny of school library books and instructional materials.

The Florida House on Thursday passed the bill (HB 1467) in a 79-41 vote nearly along party lines, putting it in position to go to DeSantis. Rep. Andrew Learned, D-Brandon, voted with Republicans for the proposal.

Earlier Thursday, the Senate approved a version of the bill that included a 12-year limit on school board member terms and sent the proposal back to the House. The House last month signed off on a version that would have imposed an eight-year term limit.

House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, recently told reporters that he would support the expanded cap.

“Look, I’m a term limits guy. I believe in term limits. I think it works for us (state lawmakers). I think it would work for school boards. Would I prefer to have eight? Sure. Would I support 12? Yes,” Sprowls said on March 2.

House bill sponsor Sam Garrison, R-Fleming Island, said Thursday that the House made a compromise in accepting longer terms for school board members.

“The Senate, in their judgment, believes that 12 is the number they want. Through our discussions with them, I think at this late stage, I’m not going to run the risk of recommending to my colleagues we walk out with nothing. Sometimes you have to take the field goal instead of go for the touchdown … to have points on the board,” he said.

But House Democrats objected to the 12-year term limit.

Rep. Susan Valdes, a Tampa Democrat and former Hillsborough County School Board member, said that the bill is a step toward “devaluing” the work of school boards.

“It was hard work. It’s not just coming up here (for) 60 days, and go back home and go about your business,” Valdes said, referring to the annual 60-day legislative session for state lawmakers. “No. It’s 24/7. It's 365 days a year. Even during spring break … school board members get phone calls, school board members have issues they need to address.”

Lawmakers have considered imposing term limits on board members in previous years but have never passed a bill that would impose a ceiling for members’ time in office.

A part of this year’s proposal that has generated significantly more controversy than the term limits is aimed at giving parents and members of the public increased access to the process of selecting and removing school library books and instructional materials.

For instance, committees that meet for the purpose of making recommendations to school boards on the “ranking, eliminating, or selecting” of instructional materials would be required to include parents of students in a school district.

School boards also would be required to publish their procedures related to developing library media centers on the websites of individual schools in a district. Elementary schools similarly would have to post on their websites a list of all materials in a media center or books required as part of a reading list.

The bill allows school districts to remove or discontinue school materials “as a result of an objection” under procedures outlined in the measure. The state Department of Education would be tasked with distributing a list of removed school materials to other school districts throughout the state.

Rep. Angie Nixon, D-Jacksonville, raised concerns about letting any member of the public have influence over the materials that students might encounter in the classroom.

“That’s really weird to me that we would allow folks from all over the country to be able to make suggestions on how we can censor and restrict books,” Nixon said.

But Garrison argued that the measure does not change current law related to the public being able to give input on school books.

“This bill does not change an iota, not a dot, of current law as to who can show up and complain to a school board,” Garrison said.

Learned, the only House Democrat who voted for the bill, praised the “transparency” that the proposal would provide.

“At the end of the day, what this bill is doing is, it’s creating transparency for our parents. And I’m OK with that,” Learned said.

Under the proposal, procedures adopted by school boards for building media center collections would have to provide for the “regular removal or discontinuance” of books based on factors such as alignment to state academic standards and relevance to curriculum.

Senate Democrats also slammed parts of the bill that would ramp up school-book scrutiny.

“Why are we doing this? I feel like I’ve been asking myself a lot of that these days. In the age of the internet, where endless information is quite literally one keystroke, one click away, do we really want to join the likes of dictators across the world and allow the banning and possibly burning of books?” Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book, D-Plantation, probed.

But Senate bill sponsor Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, defended the measure prior to Thursday's 24-15 vote along party lines.

“Local communities should have the right to know and provide feedback on what materials their schools are putting in front of our children,” said Gruters, who doubles as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.