Community leaders are stepping up to defend School Board Chair Peggy Jones and School Board Member Brian Barefoot after Gov. Ron DeSantis targeted the former Sebastian River High School principal and the former Indian River Shores mayor for electoral defeat in 2024.
Local NAACP President Tony Brown, School Board Vice Chair Teri Barenborg and former School Board member Mara Schiff were among those who rallied around Barefoot and Jones last week, after they were included on DeSantis’ list of 14 Florida school board incumbents who, according to a Fox News report, didn’t protect parents’ rights and did not shield students from “woke” ideologies.
The report stated the hit list was compiled after the governor’s aides met with Republican leaders in the Florida Legislature and representatives from the Moms For Liberty, an ultra-conservative group co-founded by island resident and former county School Board member Tiffany Justice.
“Today, it is Dr. Jones and Mr. Barefoot, but don’t close your eyes,” Brown said in an impassioned speech during the public-comment segment of a six-hour School Board meeting attended by more than 100 people last week. “Tomorrow, it might be you.”
Brown was among more than a dozen local residents who spoke in support of Barefoot and Jones at the meeting, where Moms’ members were noticeably outnumbered by attendees who voiced opposition to the governor’s actions.
Some of them said DeSantis’ collaboration with the Moms had put public education in Florida “under attack.” Many in the room booed the group’s local chair, Jennifer Pippin, as she addressed the board and endorsed the governor’s targeting of Barefoot and Jones.
Pippin argued the two board members violated state law and DeSantis’ executive order when they voted to impose a temporary, on-campus mask mandate during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic – and that the Moms were merely “holding our elected officials accountable.”
Barefoot said he continued to receive “a lot of support,” especially from Republicans around the state, in the days after the list was made public.
He said many of the people who have contacted him share his concern that “public education is under attack and, in general, deteriorating” – because it has become too politicized.
“It has become very partisan, and as a result, we’re seeing an absence of civility in discussions among people with different points of view,” Barefoot said. “And the teachers and administrators are caught in the middle.”
Barefoot, a lifelong Republican who was surprised to learn he was on DeSantis’ list, said he spoke with one of the governor’s aides last week, and she told him she will get back to him this week.
Jones, meanwhile, said she, too, has been hearing from supporters who have assured her that they would “be there for her” in 2024. Asked if she has received any negative responses from anyone other than backers of the Moms group, she replied, “Not one.”
Schiff, who served one term on the board and decided last year to not seek re-election, expressed empathy for the embattled board members during her turn at the public-comment podium.
A rare Democrat elected to countywide office here in recent years, Schiff did not flaunt her political leanings from the dais. She often voted with Barefoot and Barenborg – both longtime Republicans – and Jones, who was a Republican until changing to no-party-affiliation status after she was elected to the board.
Schiff cited “constant accusations” and “blatant attacks” from others with “limited information, and awareness of laws and policies,” adding that the job is too often made less appealing by “others who think they can and should tell citizens of Indian River County how to think and how to vote.”
She called DeSantis’ list a “blatant usurpation of local control and an expansion of government interference in local decision making,” and she said county voters should be able to select their representatives “without interference and propaganda from the state.”
Schiff closed by telling Barefoot and Jones: “It’s unconscionable that you should have to suffer these attacks from the governor and others, and I, for one, support and value you for your impartial, unbiased and apolitical work.”
Barenborg didn’t address DeSantis’ list during the meeting, but when reached by phone last week, she heaped praise on Jones, a career educator, and Barefoot, who was a wildly successful investment banker and served as president of Massachusetts’ Babson College.
“Peggy and Brian are two of the most professional people I’ve ever served with on any board or committee,” Barenborg said. “Their reputations are above reproach, and their knowledge and backgrounds in education is a benefit to our school district.
“They are the type of School Board members our community deserves.”
Cindy Gibbs ran against Rosario for the School Board’s District 2 seat and lost, but she remains an advocate for public education and spoke flatteringly of Jones and Barefoot at last week’s meeting.
She called Jones, the board chair, a “shining star” who has served in public education for decades and is “always for kids – all kids, every kind of kid – and for families and teachers.”
As for Barefoot, Gibbs noted his “decades of business experience” and said she was “sad that he hasn’t been able to really use that experience here” because the board has been forced to waste time on culture-war issues rather than focus on improving education.
“There are so many people in this room,” Gibbs said, “that are so tired of this nonsense.”