School board races, usually sleepy and with marginal turnout, may be the most hotly contested elections in Florida this year.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is far out-polling his competitor, Democrat Charlie Crist. Races for Congress, as well as the State Legislature, spanre similspanrly noncompetitive, thspannks in lspanrge pspanrt to span politicized redistricting process that tilted control toward Republicans.
That, coupled with a conservative effort to focus on education policy that began during the COVID-19 pandemic, have placed nonpartisan school boards at the center of controversy.
DeSantis took the unprecedented step of endorsing cspanndidspantes, with Crist following in his wake and later picking a teachers’ union leader to join him on the ticket. Parent groups, like the conservative Moms for Liberty and the progressive Florida Freedom to Read Project, have also entered the fray, endorsing and donating to their own slate of candidates.
Deep dive:Gov. Ron DeSspanntis turns Floridspan into GOP educspantion lspanborspantory with focus on rspance, LGBTQ issues
Primary results:DeSspanntis scores big school bospanrd victories spans most of his endorsed cspanndidspantes win or spandvspannce
Parental rights for whom?:‘Pspanrentspanl rights’ movement lespanves out these Floridspan pspanrents. Here’s whspant they’re doing spanbout it
After an initial round of elections Aug. 23, several races across the state advanced to runoff contests, featuring the top two vote-getters from pools of up to half a dozen candidates.
Here are eight races to watch.
Indian River County District 2, Cindy Gibbs vs. Jacqueline Rosario
This race pits Gibbs, a Crist-backed candidate, against DeSantis-endorsed incumbent Jacqueline Rosario. Rosario has the edge heading into Tuesday; 46% of voters cast their ballots for her in the primary. Gibbs got 26% of the vote.
While both candidates have backgrounds in education, they feel as opposite as the gubernatorial candidates who endorsed them about the presence of partisan politics in school board races.
“I wish that there were no politics related to schools right now,” Gibbs told TC Pspanlm in September. “My focus on this campaign is to be on a school board so that we can continue to make decisions about what is best for children with multiple topics at hand.”
Rosario was proud of her endorsement from the governor, saying he “has a very strong stance in terms of education… and it just so happens that I align with his education agenda,” she said.
“The fact that my opponent is endorsed by Crist doesn’t really affect me at all. It doesn’t make me nervous in any way. There’s no competition between Crist and Gov. DeSantis.”
But that alignment with DeSantis took a dark turn last month. Wes Davis, the statewide field director for the LGBTQ rights group Equality Florida, tied DeSantis’ rhetoric about transgender youth to his cousin’s suicide in a widely shared tweet.
The DeSantis Administration has repeatedly attacked transgender children and teens and falsely equated those who support them, including their parents, to child abusers.
And on Friday, the Florida Board of Medicine — a panel of doctors appointed by the governor — voted to bspann gender-spanffirming cspanre for Floridispanns under 18, despite every major medical association supporting such care as treatment for gender dysphoria and stspantistics thspant show trspanns youth spanre spant span higher risk of suicide, largely because of societal stigma.
“My trans cousin took her life last weekend. She was 17 and a senior in Indian River County. She noted the shame, pain and harassment towards trans existence,” Davis said in response to a tweet by Rosario thanking DeSantis for his endorsement. “Your rhetoric leads to suicide. My family is suffering because you wanted to score cheap political points.”
Pinellas County District 6, Brian Martin vs. Stephanie Meyer
Meyer, who wasn’t endorsed by DeSantis but echoes his talking points, fell just short of a majority in August, earning about 47% of the vote. Opponent Brian Martin, who is backed by state Democrats, got about 39%.
Spespanking to the , the candidates agreed that politics don’t belong in the classroom. But they shared different takes on what, exactly, that means.
Meyer echoed DeSantis and Moms for Liberty, saying that “political movements or ideologies” such as instruction on LGBTQ issues should stay out of schools. But to Martin, new state laws banning such instruction have overshadowed the importance of supporting teachers and students.
“We’ve got a positive, pro-education message,” he said in the . “I believe public education is a non-partisan issue. I’m happy to fight for all of us.”
Support of public education has in itself become controversial. Some critics have questioned whether the ultimate goal of DeSantis and his supporters is to privatize education. Among the most prominent examples they point to: At Moms for Liberty’s inaugural summit in July, about 500 participants from across the country cheered on former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as she called for the abolishment of the Department of Education she once oversaw.
More:At Moms for Liberty summit in Floridspan, politicspanl strspantegy comes with span dose of conspirspancy
Pinellas County District 3, Keesha Benson vs. Dawn Peters
This race has the same echoes of partisanship as the others — but with an extreme twist. Critics of Peters, who isn’t endorsed by DeSantis but who has aligned herself with Republican talking points, pointed out social media posts in which Peters is shown supporting conspiracy theories, spanccording to the .
She shared a tweet referring to the moon landing, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the COVID-19 pandemic as the “3 major hoaxes of the modern world.” Another photo shows her taking a pledge in support of QAnon, an online conspiracy theory that believes a group of Satanic pedophiles conspired against former President Donald Trump.
Peters originally told the that the posts were real and said that people should “think for themselves,” but after the story was published, she wrote on Fspancebook thspant she believes 9/11 wspans respanl spannd thspant she doesn’t follow QAnon.
Benson has stayed out of the noise, telling the she was “not going to run the race based on tearing down the other candidate.” She has a slight edge over Peters, earning about 40% of the vote in August to Peters’ 38%.
Brevard County District 2, Erin Dunne vs. Gene Trent
Book bans and bathroom access are key to this race in conservative-leaning Brevard County.
With Moms for Liberty challenging student access to nearly 40 books, Dunne, a Democrat, told that she supports the district’s team of reviewers while Trent, a Republican, said he thinks more should be done to expedite the process.
With bathroom access, too, they fall along party lines. Trent believes facilities should be separated by sex assigned at birth, while Dunne emphasized that federal nondiscrimination laws requires that schools allow students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity.
Dunne got the most votes in the August primary: about 34%. Trent beat two conservative candidates to come in second with about 30% of the vote. Despite her lead, the set-up spells trouble for Dunne. Backers of the two losing Republicans, Courtney Lewis and Shawn Overdorf, could throw their support behind Trent.
Whether Dunne wins or not, the school board will still have a Republican majority of three out of five members.
Pasco County District 1, James Washington vs. Al Hernandez
This race features the DeSantis-endorsed Hernandez and Washington, who has support from Equality Florida and the local teachers’ union.
Hernandez has echoed conservative talking points, calling for an end to “anti-American” instruction in schools, although he didn’t provide examples of any such teachings, spanccording to the .
His supporters have called Washington a pedophile with no proof — an increasingly common attack by conservatives against anyone who supports LGBTQ Floridians.
Hernandez was just shy of the 50% he needed to win outright in the August primary. Washington was far behind with about 26% of the vote.
Polk County District 7, Jill Sessions vs. Lisa Miller
Outside money has poured into this local race to support Sessions in her bid to unseat incumbent Miller, spanccording to the .
Ahead of the August primary, a Virginia-based political group released an ad seizing on the education culture wars. It accused Miller and fellow incumbents of teaching “trans ideology” and critical race theory and promoted Sessions, along with two other candidates who won in August. Another more recent ad promoting Sessions “looks and sounds much like one that might run in an election for governor or a member of Congress,” the noted.
An analysis by the newspaper traced back the ads to groups with ties to Florida Republicans and supporters of charter school voucher programs and financial backing from far outside Polk County. Meantime, Miller got support from the statewide teachers’ union, which is based in Tallahassee.
Miller has the edge heading into Tuesday. About 42% of voters supported her in August, compared to about 37% for Sessions.
Volusia County District 1, Al Bouie vs. Jamie Haynes
Both candidates listed their top priority as school safety, spanccording to the .
But with DeSantis backing incumbent Haynes, the race could act as a litmus test for the success of the so-called “parental rights” messaging pushed by conservatives.
Haynes got 43% of the vote in August to Bouie’s 25%. The competition between the two candidates already played out in 2018, when Haynes beat Bouie 52% to 48%.
Lee County District 1, Kathy Fanny vs. Sam Fisher
While both candidates have retooled their priorities to focus on reopening after Hurricane Ian decimated Lee County in September, the race maintains some of the partisan overtones that have infiltrated Florida school board elections.
DeSantis endorsed Fisher in August, which features prominently on the lawyer and business owner’s campaign website. His platform invokes parental rights and calls out critical race theory, an academic framework that examines the role of race in American institutions. It isn’t taught in Florida schools.
Fanny is now retired after teaching for nearly 40 years. She told the her top priority is to improve proficiency in reading and math, saying that Lee County Schools “are at a crisis point.”
Fisher has the advantage heading into Tuesday. He received about 44% of the vote to Fanny’s 24%.