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Duval School Board member will represent both district, conservative group in Tallahassee

School board member April Carney.
Campaign photograph
School board member April Carney.

Duval County School Board member April Carney will help the district lobby the Florida Legislature — that's after some Board and community members this week questioned her ability to represent both the district and conservative advocacy groups.

On Monday, the School Board unanimously named her as an alternate to the Florida School Board Association’s legislative advocacy committee. The statewide body sets policy goals and lobbies for them at the Florida Capitol. School Board Vice Chair Cindy Pearson will remain as the district’s primary representative on the committee.

The School Board had planned to include Carney and Pearson's nominations in their "consent agenda" Monday night — a list of non-controversial measures lumped together for a single yes vote, but public outcry about Carney's concurrent roles in the groups Moms for Liberty and Florida Conservative Coalition of School Board Members convinced the board to pull out her nomination for further debate.

Ties to outside groups

Carney is the vice president of the Florida Conservative Coalition of School Board Members, an organization she says was resurrected in direct response to the Florida School Board Association earlier this year.

"There was a lot of feedback from the new school board members that they didn't feel like what went on during [the FSBA] conference necessarily aligned with them," Carney told the rest of the Duval School Board Monday. "I was approached by some other newly elected school board members, like, 'Is there something for us?' And so that's that's how that happened."

Carney was among about two dozen conservative school board candidates endorsed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last fall.

School Board member Darryl Willie questioned how she could represent both the district on both the FSBA and a group created in opposition to the FSBA.

The Florida Conservative Coalition of School Board Members is "almost the exact opposite, was created because the ideals of the FSBA didn't align," Willie said Monday. "How is that going to work when you're member of one and then represent the other?"

She insisted her leadership role in the group doesn't pose a conflict of interest in representing the district.

"At the end of the day, my responsibility is to this district and this board and there is nothing that I want more than to make sure that Duval County Public Schools is represented in Tallahassee," Carney said.

"Being able to be in in both groups gives me a very large perspective of what the needs are of school board members, and these are things that I can bring back to FSBA," Carney said.

Restricted public comment

The School Board spent nearly half an hour discussing Carney's nomination after public commenters also took issue with her affiliation with the conservative parents' group Moms for Liberty.

"I think the concern as voiced in the public hearing and some of the emails is Ms. Carney's membership with Moms for Liberty and their advocacy for banning books on African American history, their efforts against LGBTQ," School Board member Warren Jones said Monday.

"How can a person who's a member of Moms for Liberty advocate for policies that we may approve that goes against what they'll recommend?"

Carney countered Jones' claim, defending Moms for Liberty at the end of Monday's meeting.

"I implore you to go to a meeting. I think that you will find out that you have a lot more in common with the Moms for Liberty group than what the media portrays," Carney said. "They're for truth, they are not for banning African American history."

Katie Hathaway with the Florida chapter of Moms Demand Action and Public School Defenders Duval County was among those opposing Carney's nomination to the committee during public comment Monday, noting that the civil rights group Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled Moms for Liberty an "anti government, extremist" group.

Hathaway was interrupted by Board member Kelly Coker, who said, "We're not going to attack organizations and people."

The district's general counsel Ray Poole added, "The Board chair has the ability to govern comments from the public for the purposes of civil discourse and decorum, so we're going to ask that there not be attacks on organizations."

The School Board's policy explicitly bans personal attacks, and the board has long prevented commenters from criticizing Board members by name. The board's policy states: "Speakers will avoid the use of profane or vulgar language or personal attacks."

However, the policy does not explicitly bar attacks on organizations. When Jacksonville Today asked Poole to clarify this discrepancy, he said Monday's prohibition was based on "the parameters of the First Amendment, as set forth in court opinions, as applied to public comment in limited public forums."

Poole also supplied a list of court cases relating to public comment, including a ruling earlier this year giving government bodies "substantial discretion in enforcing facially neutral restrictions."

Public School Defenders Duval County accused the district of applying public comment restrictions unequally, after another public commenter called LGBTQ+ student support organization GLSEN and student Gay Straight Alliance groups "sex clubs" and was not asked to stop.

What FSBA's advocacy committee does

School Board Vice Chair Cindy Pearson will remain the primary representative for the district on the FSBA's advocacy committee. In that capacity, she says, "I pitch our ideas and fight for our ideas from Duval to be added to the FSBA legislative platform."

"Whatever ends up on the FSBA legislative platform, that's kind of the official list of things that FSBA membership will be advocating for and lobbying for in the upcoming session," Pearson said.

Following Monday's vote, Carney will stay informed of these meetings and fill in for Pearson when she is unable to, according to Pearson.

Pearson says Carney was the only School Board member to volunteer for the alternate role.

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. You can reach Claire at (904) 250-0926 or on Twitter @ClaireHeddles.