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It's not just the weather: school board races are heated this year

People wait in line to vote during the Republican primary election in Wilson, Wyo., Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
People wait in line to vote during the Republican primary election in Wilson, Wyo., Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, school boards across the country and here in Central Florida have become increasingly more political. This election season, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has gone so far as to endorse candidates in line with his beliefs. 

Jennifer Jenkins is wearing a gray t-shirt that reads, “Woman Up.” 

Jenkins was elected to the Brevard County School Board back in August of 2020. She says it’s been a difficult road due to the harassment she’s experienced from parents and other community members over her support of face masks. 

"I don't reject people coming here and speaking their voice. They do it all the time. We don't, we don't stop them from doing that. I don't reject them standing outside my home. I reject them following me around in a car. Following my car around. I reject them saying that they're coming for me, that I need to beg for mercy. "

Jenkins was on the cusp of what she calls highly political school boards in Florida, something UCF political scientist Aubrey Jewett says is a relatively new phenomenon driven by a number of factors.

"One, it was the COVID stuff. Two, it’s some of these other social issues like LGBT, and race-related issues. And then three, it's the political ambitions of some of the politicians involved. And here in Florida, we're specifically talking about Governor DeSantis."

Jewett says DeSantis has taken to endorsing school board candidates and even has launched a “DeSantis Education Agenda” survey, polling candidates about their views on topics from critical race theory to communism. 

He says school board races here in Florida are nonpartisan in theory but not in practice in this hyper-politicized environment. 

Andrea Messina, director of the Florida School Boards Association says the result has been board members retiring early because of the contentious climate. 

"When it spills over into a spouse's workplace, and their spouse is being harassed or ridiculed or the spouse has nothing to do with the school board member sitting at the dais. It's the school board member who ran for elected office, not the spouse, and certainly not the children. And so when board members have their family members, have become ensnared, that's when they're starting to draw the line."

Melissa Graham is a former middle school teacher and current Orange County PTA member who attended board meetings regularly during the pandemic. 

She says she’s seen the incivility and she’s disappointed that the focus has been taken away from less political but still important problems.

"We have real issues at hand. I believe the top issue is teacher retention, and teacher morale."

Graham says more civility is needed. 

"We don't need to be screaming and yelling at our leaders in a meeting or, you know, through email threatening them. We need to work together to listen and I believe very strongly that our kids are watching us every step of the way. And I personally want to be on the right side of history."

Graham says it’s the kids who are done a disservice when school boards and communities play politics. She says she’s concerned that school boards will remain overly political with elections in August and November. 

Danielle Prieur is WMFE's education reporter.