Jacksonville Mayor-Appointed School Board Proposal Could Face Legal Hurdle

Aug 7, 2019

A Jacksonville state lawmaker wants to allow the mayor to appoint members to the Duval County Public Schools Board instead of their being elected by voters. 

Republican Rep. Jason Fischer, who served on the School Board before running for a House seat in 2016, is pushing the local bill that would change the city charter at the state level.      

“The reason I put the bill out there is for us to have a full conversation around, like, should it be a board and commission just like the others in the charter?” he said. “Or should it be fully independent and elected, like they are around the state right now?”    

Fischer’s legislation would give the mayor and City Council the power to appoint members and remove them at will. 

“I am just really baffled how taking away citizens’ right to vote for their representatives and have it transitioned into an appointment boosts our republic,” said Duval County Public Schools Board Chairwoman Lori Hershey. “It’s troubling to me. I don’t understand that.”   

The Florida Constitution mandates school board members be “chosen by vote,” which would require an amendment to change. But University of Florida constitutional law Professor Timothy McLendon said another provision in the state constitution allows Duval to do things differently.

“That's what makes Jacksonville unique, that Jacksonville consolidated the city of Jacksonville with Duval County, and thus the relationship of a lot of things had to be reworked in terms of functioning in the context of a consolidated local government,” said McLendon, who is also a staff attorney at UF’s Center for Governmental Responsibility

The 1968 consolidation of Jacksonville with Duval County gave the city home rule over “any or all county, district, municipal and local governments, boards, bodies, and offices,” according to the Florida Constitution. 

But McLendon said there’s a bit of ambiguity because “nothing in that language was inconsistent with Article 9, Section 4,” which is the mandate to operate school boards of five or more members who are elected in nonpartisan elections. 

“So I think it would be subject to challenge as to whether or not this special law has the power to vary that,” said McLendon. He said Fischer’s bill presents unique questions in Florida. 

WJCT News reached out to the office of Jacksonville General Counsel Jason Gabriel, who drafted Fischer’s legislation, for comment. He did not respond by this story’s deadline. But in 2010, when the city’s Charter Revision Commission considered a similar appointed board proposal, the general counsel warned of a “strong likelihood of a legal challenge,” according to WJCT News partner the Jacksonville Daily Record.  

“If the Commission, as a policy matter, recommends to the City Council that School Board members be appointed, the most appropriate method would be by constitutional amendment applied statewide, and providing for a local by referendum of the people,” wrote the general counsel.  

Fischer is putting forth his proposal as the Jacksonville Charter Review Commission is once again considering a mayor-appointed school board. Meanwhile, the City Council and School Board continue locking horns over whether to let voters decide on a half-cent sales tax to fund school replacements and maintenance. Hershey said the timing is interesting. 

Related: Duval Schools Chart: City’s Tax Referendum Discussion ‘Feels More Like Extortion

“It is curious, though, isn’t it? How it does seem like a punishment a little bit, right? We asked a question and we hadn’t gotten anything, and then we get hit with this,” she said. “So it does look like there’s an attack on public education in Duval County.” 

Other school board members have also criticized the idea, like Elizabeth Anderson, who called the move “a war on public education” on Twitter.

Hershey said if Fischer’s bill becomes state law Mayor Lenny Curry would be able to fill four seats: two up for re-election in 2020 and two who are termed out. They include her's, plus Vice Chair Warren Jones, and members Cheryl Grymes and Ashley Smith Juarez.

Fischer chairs the Duval Delegation of state lawmakers. The group is set to vote the bill up or down in October before the next legislative session, which starts Jan. 14, 2020.

Contact Abukar Adan at 904-358-6319, aadan@wjct.org or on Twitter at @abukaradan17