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Fla. Court Bars Nonpartisan School-Board Elections

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School-board members in six Florida counties could be forced to run for re-election this fall as a result of a state supreme court ruling that nonpartisan school-board elections are unconstitutional.

The decision highlights an unusual clause in the Florida Constitution that requires school-board candidates to declare a party affiliation.

Ruling in a case brought by the Martin County Republican Party in 1985, the state high court this month ordered the circuit court serving the county to declare the current school board unconstitutionally elected and to set a date for a new election.

While the case pertains only to Martin County, six other counties hold nonpartisan elections, and legal challenges are expected in five of them, according to Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.

The five counties potentially affected by the ruling are Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Palm Beach, and Seminole. The sixth county--Duval--operates under a special charter that exempts it from the constitutional requirement.

"We are strongly in favor of partisan elections and expect to challenge," said Marjorie Kincaid, chairman of the Hillsborough County Republican Party. "I think it is important because your party label is the only way the public knows what your philosophy is. If you say you are nonpartisan, then you're nothing."

Mr. Blanton said the school boards' association has filed a bill in the legislature to allow counties to continue nonpartisan elections if they so choose. But, in light of the high-court ruling, he rates the bill's chances for passage as slim.

Nationally, an overwhelming majority of school-board members are elected in nonpartisan elections, according to the National School Boards Association.

A 1986 survey of school boards and superintendents conducted by the Educational Research Service8showed that nearly 84 percent of school-board members are elected in nonpartisan elections and that 10 percent are chosen in partisan races; the rest are appointed.

Bill Declared Void

Some Florida counties first turned to nonpartisan school-board elections in 1976, when the state legislature passed a bill to allow localities to hold referendums on the issue.

Martin County voters that year approved by a 2-to-1 margin a referendum to switch to a nonpartisan election.

Five years ago, the Republicanel10lParty there filed suit against the local supervisor of elections, claiming that the referendum was unconstitutional. When that suit was filed, the Martin County school board voted to join the supervisor of elections in defending the practice.

"It is the board's feeling that a nonpartisan election creates less of a political situation for school-board members," said Frank Brogan, superintendent of Martin County schools.

But the local g.o.p. argued that a partisan election would generate more interest in the elections and would force candidates to stand on a particular platform. The Republicans also argued that a two-party system is the basis of the democratic system.

Last year, the supreme court held that the bill allowing local referendums was unconstitutional. Any such change in school-board election rules would have to hold statewide, the court said.

The Martin County school board asked the high court for a rehearing and some clarifications. This month, the court denied the request for a rehearing and instructed the local circuit court to set a date for new elections in Martin County.

The elections are expected to be held in November. In the meantime, Gov. Bob Martinez has agreed to appoint the current members to the board.

In its clarifications, the court said that all decisions made by the board since it was formed by nonpartisan elections are legal.

Educators in other counties that may be affected questioned whether there is any real difference in the quality of decisions made by partisan and nonpartisan school boards.

"I don't know that the quality of education benefits or suffers because of partisan elections," said Dan McIntyre, superintendent of schools in Hernando County, which will likely see its board elections challenged. "If people make their decisions for the right reasons, then it really doesn't make any difference."

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