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Though he's made no endorsements, Gov. Ron DeSantis looms over Leon County's school board races

A green, mesh pencil cup with pencils sits on a desk in a classroom.
Patrick Sternad
WFSU Public Media
A classroom pencil jar sits on a teacher's desk

The Leon County School Board could shift a bit to the right depending on the outcomes of local races. While Gov. Ron DeSantis has not endorsed any local candidates for school board his influence is playing out in a predominantly blue county.

DeSantis has pushed against mask mandates and championed new laws that restrict how issues of race, history, and sexual identity are discussed in public schools. As a result, many of the local school board candidates are saying teachers need to stick to the state standards—no more, no less.

“Stick to the facts, stick to the standards, we need to make sure the students have a chance to share their perspectives on things," said Alex Stemle, assistant principal at Godby High School, "but we gotta get focused on the learning and content and standards presented by the department of education.”

Stemle is one of three people trying to replace DeeDee Rasmussen on the board. She resigned on June 15. Stemle, a longtime educator, says he recognizes teachers are under scrutiny.

“I agree," said Laurie Cox, a retired teacher and the spouse of the district’s assistant superintendent, Alan Cox.

"I think a good teacher knows how to create good dialogue [with] students, but it shouldn’t be a teacher’s opinion that gets in there. To me, a classroom should never know where a teacher stands. They should be totally neutral.”

While Cox has not formally been endorsed by the parental rights group, Mom’s for Liberty, she has said some of her views align with theirs. Another Mom’s for Liberty-friendly candidate is Susan Hodges, who is also in the running for District 4 which covers Northwest Leon County.

“I also think we need to look at the curriculum taught to make sure it is factual and to make sure we are aware of where the race started—the race issues—and where that came from and have [a] curriculum that speaks the truth on that," she said at WFSU's forum.

The political pressure is also being felt in the District 1 race, where current school board member Alva Swafford Striplin is trying to keep her seat. She’s worked to put daylight between herself and Leon Superintendent Rocky Hanna, who has been critical of Moms for Liberty. and has openly clashed with DeSantis over mandatory school masking.

“I believe all parents within our district have a right to interject their opinion in our meetings," Striplin said during a candidate forum at WFSU. "We want them all to come to the podium of the Leon County School board and for all of them to be heard. No one opinion is more important than any other opinion. I believe they’re all valid.”

For Marianne Arbulu, the former superintendent of Jefferson County, teachers must be circumspect about how they approach topics like race, sexuality and history—but they must still strive to be truthful.

“I think we should teach honestly," said Arbulu of her approach to trying to strike a balance. "There’s nothing wrong with sharing your experiences with your students within the confines of appropriateness.”

The only candidate in either race that has clearly delineated himself from others is Anthony DeMarco—an unabashed critic of the governor and Moms for Liberty. DeMarco has also criticized the district for its revised LGBTQ instructional guide, which calls for parents to be notified if a transgender child decides to use a facility that does not correspond to their birth gender.

“It’s extremely invasive," said Anthony DeMarco, of the guide's language around parental notification. "Are we going to ask them [transgender kids] to sit at the back of the bus, next?”

There are three candidates per race. In order to win the seats outright, candidates need to secure more than half of the vote. If not, the races will head to a November runoff, where candidates will have to find ways to appeal to a broader pool of voters.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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