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Crisis in the Classroom: School boards could get even more political if bill passes

Police arrested a man who refused to take a seat at the Palm Beach County School Board meeting on Aug. 25, 2021. (WPEC)
Police arrested a man who refused to take a seat at the Palm Beach County School Board meeting on Aug. 25, 2021. (WPEC)
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Irate, screaming, and sometimes even profane parents became a common sight at Palm Beach County school board meetings while the district enforced its mask mandate.

While those meetings have begun to calm down, some of those parents are still angry, and some legislators in Tallahassee are listening.

School board reform is the topic of a few bills now up for debate – but one in particular, seems designed to perpetuate this divisiveness going forward.

Sean Sykes, of Palm Beach Gardens, was one of those vocal parents pleading with the school board to drop the district’s mask mandate for students.

“They didn’t take the information from both sides to make a decision,” says Sykes. “It’s 100 percent politics.”

Now there’s a bill circulating in Tallahassee that could make school boards even more political.

The proposal would amend the state constitution to require school board candidates to declare a party affiliation before they can run. Right now, Florida school boards are nonpartisan.

If the bill passes, voters would decide one way or another in November.

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State Senator Gayle Harrell from the Treasure Coast thinks that’s the best idea – “I have no problems with partisan elections. Everything else in our country is a partisan election. For me it’s fine, but let the people speak.”

But a lack of choice is one reason Palm Beach County school board member Erica Whitfield is against making school boards partisan. Florida has closed primaries – which means millions of registered Independents wouldn’t have a say in who runs for school board seats.

Whitfield also believes decisions about our children’s education are too important to be politicized.

“I try really hard not to think of things along party lines,” says Whitfield. “I really try, because this position is non-partisan. I go to people that don’t align with me and ask them for their vote too.”

Whitfield says she believes it would add more division and that would not be helpful. But Sykes says right now, you can’t avoid conversations about politics.

Sykes says the law would give parents a better idea of where school board candidates stand before they are elected. He’s planning on running himself this year – to add a conservative voice to a largely liberal board.


“Especially when it comes to children in the school system - you have to know what’s going on,” says Sykes. “You have to know what people stand for. If 2020 did anything, it awoke parents to more of what’s going on in the school system.”

SEE ALSO: Maskless man arrested at school board meeting in Palm Beach County

Whitfield has a conservative parent challenging her in District 4 - Angelique Contreras, who made headlines last week after a picture of her surfaced at the January 6 Pro-Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol.

“I try to be moderate, we listen to everybody,” says Whitfield. “School boards should be a place where all people are welcomed. But we are seeing people that are not quite as moderate that are influencing these races. Creating that partisanship within the elections could cause this to go even further in that direction and I don’t think that’s good for school boards in general. It should be just prioritizing what is right for our kids and secondarily what’s right for our employees.”

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The primary election for Palm Beach County School Board seats is Aug. 23. If legislators pass the partisan school board bill, it won’t impact this year’s school board, but voters will get to choose whether to support the change in November.

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