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School board ballot initiative moves forward

May 14, 2014
By MEGHAN McCOY ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

The Lee County School Board is moving forward with a November ballot initiative that would expand the number of board members by two.

"We think that expanding the board will help us serve the community," Board Member Mary Fischer said.

The board had three options to choose from during a workshop earlier this week. Options included seven members elected "at large"; five members elected by district with two elected "at large;" or seven members elected by district.

By concensus, the board moved forward with the five-two "hybrid."

Currently, the board has five members, all of whom are elected "at large," or countywide. Although elected by all voters, they must live in the district they represent.

To have seven districts at large, redistricting with new lines to establish the districts would have to be drawn. According to Florida statute, redistricting must be done in odd numbered years, which could take place in 2015. It would cost approximately $8,000 to redistrict.

With the second option, five single district members with two board members at large, there would be no need to redistrict. The five board members would be elected solely by the voters within their district of residence. The two new, at large, board members would be countywide with no requirement of residency.

Board Member Don Armstrong used himself as an example. Since he lives in District Four, only residents in that district would be able to vote for him. He believes this option would provide people with more of a voice as to who sits on the board to represent a particular district.

The last option also would not require redistricting and all seven board members would be elected by voters in their district.

"We decided on the option of five single member districts and two at- large members," Fischer said. "We decided to go with the most simple option and that would be the best for everyone."

She explained that as proposed, one of the new board members would be voted in on a four-year term and the other a two-year term to correlate with the rest of the election cycle. Fischer said whoever was elected would finish out their term the same as the next two board members that are up for reelection in 2016.

Armstrong said usually a county that has more than 600,000 residents expands to a seven-member board. He said Lee County now exceeds that number of residents.

"When you look at statistics, it shows having a bigger board helps improve the dynamics of the board," he said.

Armstrong said expanding the board has both pros and cons.

"I'm still not sold 100 percent on this," he said.

With two new board members, he said, there will be an additional cost.

"More offices, more staff, more salaries, more benefits," Armstrong said of the added board members. "There is a negative side to it that I am not sold about."

He said he always has a concern when it comes to taxpayer money.

"I want to make sure we are spending the money wisely at all times and it is the right thing to do," Armstrong said.

With that said, he believes there are also many positive aspects of adding board members. Armstrong said the board members will have the opportunity to better represent their district and, with seven board members, more opinions will be expressed.

Fischer agreed that there are positives with the option the agreed on for board expansion.

"I think it will be good for us to be able to cover the schools more closely and effectively," she said. "With single member districts, (there will be) more opportunities to serve our own areas more comprehensively."

Fischer said she hopes, with seven seats, it will bring more diversity to the board as well.

"There might be a potential for more minorities to be included," she said because of the representation of individual districts.

Since the board was in favor of expanding to seven members, Board Attorney Keith Martin is drafting the language that will be brought back for a public hearing on May 20.

"Our board attorney will be setting the wheels in motion to bring to the voters this coming November," Fischer said.

She said the issue would then be up to the voters.

"We decided to move forward and take it to the voters," Fischer said. "It's always up to them. It's all about the decisions they make and want to happen. If they agree it will happen."



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