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Choice for school board members comes to Florida

• Mike Thomas

As a professional, Shawn Frost works with business start-ups.

“I always think differently,’’ he says. “I have clients who call me when they want to do something different.’’

But it was as a member of the Indian River County School Board that Frost really decided to do something different. He took on the established Florida School Boards Association by starting up a conservative alternative.

The idea was born out of frustration. The FSBA joined the state’s teachers union last year in a lawsuit to stop a tax-credit scholarship program for low-income children. That prompted an outcry from civil rights activists, parents, legislators and other advocates of school choice.

The president of the FSBA happened to be a two-term incumbent on the Indian River School Board. Frost ran against her last year and won.

“They poked a bear that didn’t need to be poked,’’ Frost says. “The lawsuit showed that they weren’t in alignment with what parents and taxpayers who elect us want. They were using the taxpayer’s money to sue the taxpayers. They wanted to kick 68,000 children out of a situation that worked for them, and it was all about money.’’

FCSBM-logo-(Square)He found some like-minded school board members from other counties. And in February they announced the formation of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members.

Erika Donalds, a school board member from Collier County, is a director. She saw the demand for school choice after helping start the Mason Classical Academy charter school, which opened in Naples last year. It has 414 students and 600 on a waiting list.

“I want to change the culture of us versus them with choice schools versus traditional schools,’’ she says. “Public education is the education of the public, no matter what form that takes.’’

Jeff Bergosh, from Escambia County, became the fledgling group’s first president. He has two children in public schools, along with one graduate. His wife was president of the county’s PTA.

“We are all in on public schools,’’ he says. “But I don’t think being pro-public schools and pro-school choice are incompatible. I don’t think public schools will survive if they don’t learn how to compete.’’

School choice is not their only issue. They support accountability, local control, more parental input, fiscal discipline and ending what they say is a lockstep mentality in which school boards becomes more beholden to the system than the public.

They also see a growing disconnect between state lawmakers and the Florida School Boards Association, which has lessened the effectiveness of the latter in representing school districts.

Coalition members also object to the FSBA dues arrangement in which school districts pay a set amount for the entire board. Dues paid on their behalf, in effect, were used to help fund the lawsuit. They want to change the fee structure to one that funds individual memberships so board members can opt out if they don’t want to contribute to funding the FSBA.

For example, Collier County pays $21,000 for its membership, or $4,200 per board member. Donalds would rather see the $4,200 paid on her behalf go back into the classroom. Board members also could choose to use some of the money to join a different organization, such as the coalition.

Its dues are $99 a year, although they have been discounted to half that to encourage membership. The new coalition also plans to offer professional development courses, information on fiscal best management practices and other services at a cheaper cost than the FSBA.

“We don’t intend on buying any buildings in Tallahassee,’’ Donalds says.

About 25 school board members from around the state have joined. The leadership hopes to expand that number by marketing, and also by recruiting more conservatives to run for school boards.

Their agenda is ambitious, but they all cite growing support. They believe once they have established themselves in Florida, they can expand the concept to other states, particularly those where school choice is a big issue.

“There is a change in culture and education leadership,’’ says Donalds. “It all is going in that direction. It’s only matter a time. We would love to expand and have aspirations to make this a national organization.’’

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at