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DeSantis chalks up wins in school board races

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference on June 14.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a press conference on June 14.

Gov. Ron DeSantis took the unusual step this year of campaigning for county school-board candidates and saw most of them win Tuesday night, as the governor and local Republicans seek to elect conservative members to the boards and, at least in some cases, create conservative majorities.

In the run-up to Tuesday’s primary elections, DeSantis released a slate of 30 endorsements of what he called “pro-parent” candidates for school boards. Nineteen of those candidates won races outright on Tuesday, and six advanced to the November general election. DeSantis campaign spokeswoman Lindsey Curnutte said the campaign is counting the results as 25 wins.

Since July, the governor’s political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, has given $1,000 contributions to all 30 candidates, which the campaign billed as the first time a governor has made “significant” investments in the nonpartisan races.

But the last two years have seen school boards become partisan battlegrounds. DeSantis and his administration have engaged in high-profile clashes with school boards that he accused of not respecting parental rights on issues such as mask requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

DeSantis also made weekend appearances leading up to the primaries to boost his favored candidates.

“This is new, particularly for Republicans. Because that had basically been, unions would back candidates and that would be it. And so now, I think more parents are interested, some of our voters are interested. We have no consequential races, really, statewide that are competitive. So you have a situation where this may be one reason why people are motivated. So we tried to help out this weekend,” DeSantis said Tuesday.

After Tuesday’s results, some county Republican parties celebrated a “flip” in the makeup of school boards.

The Duval County Republican Party celebrated the election of April Carney and re-election of board member Charlotte Joyce, both DeSantis-backed candidates.

“These victories officially FLIP the School Board to majority registered Republicans 4-3. More importantly it rejects the WOKE indoctrination, sexualization, and Marxist policies that have been allowed to occur and puts the power back into the hands of PARENTS!” an email from the Duval County GOP said Tuesday night.

DeSantis’ campaign also highlighted “two major wins” In Miami-Dade County by school-board candidates Monica Colucci and Roberto Alonso. The governor made a stop in Miami-Dade over the weekend to boost Colucci and Alonso.

Wins by “parental rights” school-board candidates spanned 22 counties on Tuesday, according to Moms For Liberty, a conservative organization founded by two former school-board members. DeSantis spoke last month at a Moms For Liberty “summit” in Tampa.

The Sarasota County Republican Party declared a “SWEEP!” in school-board races Tuesday that “reset the Board,” with wins by candidates Timothy Enos and Robyn Marinelli and the re-election of Bridget Ziegler.

“Parents win, children win, education first wins. Woke indoctrination loses. A complete repudiation of the last two years of radical, divisive Board leadership,” the Sarasota party said in an email newsletter Wednesday.

DeSantis will seek re-election in November against Democratic nominee Charlie Crist, who won a lopsided primary Tuesday over state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

Democrats, in an effort to counter DeSantis’ school-board recommendations, released a list of their own preferred candidates. Party Chairman Manny Diaz announced that 10 of the 28 candidates he endorsed won Tuesday.

““Under Governor DeSantis and Republican leadership, Florida’s public education system is in trouble,” Diaz said in a statement Tuesday night. “While DeSantis has turned school board elections into new political battlegrounds and focused on his personal partisan politics, only 25% of third-graders are demonstrating proficient reading levels, and less than half of high school students perform at a satisfactory level or better in algebra.”

Diaz cast his preferred candidates as “committed public servants” who will “serve as champions for our public schools, parents, teachers, and students.”

“We need school board members who believe that public education is the bedrock of the American dream and that public education must afford every child the opportunity to reach their fullest potential, be responsible citizens and participate in a competitive global economy,” Diaz said.

Diaz-backed candidates won races in Alachua, Palm Beach, Marion, St. Lucie, Hillsborough, Osceola and Volusia counties. Three candidates backed by Diaz, Sarah Rockwell, Diyonne McGraw and Tina Certain, won races in Alachua County.

Alachua County schools Superintendent Carlee Simon painted the wins as a rejection of DeSantis’ politics by local voters.

“DeSantis pumped major money into our county to turn Alachua’s School Board “Red.” He failed miserably!! Every candidate he funded/endorsed lost with huge margins. The appointee he inserted to terminate me … she’s gone too! Stop meddling @RonDeSantisFL, we don’t want you here!” Simon said in a Twitter post.

Ryan Dailey - News Service of Florida