Volusia chairwoman joins conservative school board group
Published: Thursday, February 26, 2015 at 2:57 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 26, 2015 at 10:37 p.m.
The Florida School Boards Association is intended to represent the concerns of public school officials across the state, but Volusia School Board Chairwoman Linda Costello said she felt minority viewpoints on controversial issues were falling on deaf ears.
First and foremost, Costello said she disagreed with the long-standing organization’s lawsuit challenging the Florida Tax Credit scholarship, which pays tuition for nearly 70,000 low-income students statewide who attend private schools.
Last December, Costello and board members from all over Florida attended an event in Tampa organized by the association, and a handful of like-minded officials decided they’d form an alternative group. The group also supports local control and fiscal responsibility, according to its website.
Costello, as well as board members from different parts of the state, launched the Florida Coalition of School Board Members last week. The group is positioned as a conservative version of the Florida School Boards Association. The Ormond Beach Republican, who unseated 20-year veteran board member Judy Conte in 2012, is listed as a director on the organization’s website. Volusia board member Melody Johnson also said Friday she decided to join the new group.
During a regular School Board meeting Monday, Costello suggested to her colleagues that they consider dropping their membership with the Florida School Boards Association, citing the organization’s annual fee of $21,766. No formal motion was made.
Last year, the association, along with the Florida Education Association, filed a suit against the Florida Tax Credit scholarship, contending the program violates the state’s constitution by creating a parallel education system and by directing tax money to religious institutions. The program allows corporations to receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits for contributions to the scholarship fund, diverting $1.6 billion in tax dollars to private schools since 2002. Lawmakers agreed last year to open the program to middle-income students, who will be eligible for partial scholarships starting with the 2016-17 school year.
Costello said she disagrees with the suit.
“I am for choice,” she said. “Parents have a right to choose what’s best for their child. The issue seems to be about who gets the money, not what’s best for children.”
But Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, said Costello is part of a small minority. Members determine the organization’s direction, he said, and most of them think the tax credit program is unconstitutional. The group’s 27 directors voted unanimously to pursue the lawsuit last year.
“If she is concerned about her voice not being heard, she needs to be involved in the association and convince half of the members in the state we need to go in a different direction because we work for them,” said Blanton, who retires from his post today after serving in that role for 31 years and as the assistant director for a decade before that.
Creating an alternative to the state’s main school board organization is unusual, said Thomas Alsbury, a professor of educational administration and supervision at Seattle Pacific University, especially given the circumstances. That’s because school board members are strongly supportive of public schools in most states.
The move is an example of how local school boards are becoming more partisan, said Caroline Zucker, a Sarasota County School Board member who is president-elect of the Florida School Boards Association. As in Volusia, local political parties were more involved in the 2014 election there than they have been in the past.
“It remains to be seen who gets elected and how the face of education changes in Florida,” she said.
This trend is not unique to this state. School boards across the country are becoming more political, especially in larger districts, Alsbury said, as federal lawmakers gain more control over local schools.
“I believe that the general public is frustrated in the same way,” Alsbury said. “(They think) ‘If I get on my local board, I can change those things. I can have more control.’ They get on the board and realize, ‘No, I can’t.’ ”
Zucker, who has served for 16 years over a 23-year period on the Sarasota board, said she was surprised by the announcement about the new group.
“My initial reaction was, ‘Why?’ ” Zucker said. “To me, you work within the system. The majority of the members of this new group are fairly new school board members.”
The new members include Zucker’s colleague, Bridget Ziegler, who was appointed to the Sarasota County School Board last June by Gov. Rick Scott to finish the term of a board member who stepped down. She won a full four-year term in November. Ziegler, a Republican, is married to a current state committeeman for the Florida Republican Party.
Ziegler said she felt an underlying dissatisfaction with the Florida School Boards Association during the group’s annual conference late last year, especially with the organization’s lawsuit against the scholarship program. She said she doesn’t believe the group’s priorities, like using money wisely or giving parents more choices about where their children attend school, are partisan issues, adding that Democrats like Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg have supported the tax-credit program.
“I think ‘conservative’ doesn’t necessarily mean Republican or Democrat,” Ziegler said, referring to the new group’s mission.
Volusia’s Johnson said she joined the coalition late last week after hearing about it through news stories. She said she agrees with the new group’s stance on the tax-credit scholarship and thinks the $49 membership fee, which includes online training, was reasonable.
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