Far-right groups ‘actively working’ to replace Karen Rose on Sarasota School Board

Herald-Tribune | By Steven Walker | June 21, 2023

When Sarasota County School Board Vice Chairwoman Karen Rose made a motion to hire Terrence Connor as the School District’s next superintendent last week, it immediately prompted a sharp challenge among former supporters, who questioned her fit for the office.

The detractors included Michael Flynn, a former national security advisor to Donald Trump who has become a local Republican Party activist and endorsed another finalist for the superintendent’s job. The Hollow, a right-wing activist group with ties to Flynn, posted on Facebook on June 16 an announcement that it was “actively working” to find a candidate to replace Rose when she’s up for re-election next year.

The reaction was far different compared to eight months ago, when she made the motion for the School Board to terminate the previous superintendent, Brennan Apslen, whose removal the same conservative groups had sought because of his handling of the district’s COVID-19 response and other issues.

The groups named in the critical post against Rose include The Hollow, Sarasota County Moms for America, Sarasota County Republican Assembly Club, ZEM Volunteers, and the Sarasota School District Transparency Project.

Rose’s seat is up for re-election in August 2024, but she has not yet formally filed to run. The only candidate to file for the next School Board election is Tom Edwards, the board’s only registered Democrat.

“I am not going to focus in on my next campaign. I’m not going to focus in on that election. I’m going to focus in on doing what’s right for our students in the community, and that election will go the way that it goes,” Rose said in an interview with the Herald-Tribune Tuesday.

Right-wing activist groups posted to Facebook in response to the Sarasota School Board’s hiring of Terrence Connor as its next superintendent. The groups said they were “actively working” to find a candidate to replace Vice Chairwomen Karen Rose. Screenshot

Connor’s selection

Rose was on the prevailing side of the 3-2 vote on June 13 to negotiate a contract with Connor, a deputy administrator from Hillsborough County. The conservative critics expressed anger that Rose and Robyn Marinelli, a Republican who won election last year, aligned with Edwards in favoring Connor.

School Board Chairwoman Bridget Ziegler, one of the leading conservative Republican voices on education issues in Florida and nationally, and Republican Tim Enos preferred Joe Phillips from Broward County and current interim superintendent Allison Foster for superintendent.

During the selection process, Flynn submitted a letter of recommendation for Charles Van Zant from Clay County, which Van Zant included in the packets he handed to the board and its selection advisory committee members. Van Zant, who was also the preferred candidate of several of the groups now critical of Rose, described himself as a “staunch conservative.” In his interview for Collier County’s superintendent vacancy, he said that he wanted to reach “unchurched students” in the district and teach them Christian values.

Despite the vocal backlash to Connor’s selection by the conservative activists who have dominated School Board politics for more than two years, Rose said she remains “extraordinarily confident” in her decision. She said it was based on the principles she focused on, which were growing academic achievement, providing high-quality public education and serving families and students in the district.

A letter from Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn endorsing Charles Van Zant for Sarasota’s superintendent vacancy. Van Zant has described himself as a “staunch conservative” and is one of the finalists to be Sarasota’s next superintendent. Steven Walker

She said she holds no ill will toward anyone vocally opposed to her decision, and that she’s engaged those who have reached out to her to explain her rationale.

During the meeting where she voted for Connor, Rose offered the public some insight into her thought process.

“I am going to stay with the science of education, and that has been my commitment to you. My first choice, based on that, is Terrence Connor,” she said. “He comes with a proven track record of accomplishment, and he exemplifies that science and employing it.”

The Republican Party of Sarasota County endorsed Karen Rose for her election in 2020, and many of the individuals in the groups named in the post voted for her. Rose maintained that her support in 2020 was bipartisan and nonpolitical, pointing to her nearly three decades of experience as a district employee. But that support was tested by her push to remove Asplen.

The Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association, the local teachers union, backed Rose in both School Board elections she’s run in, but was highly critical of Rose’s move to fire Asplen.

The conservative groups now criticizing Rose also canvassed for the “ZEM” conservative slate of School Board candidates in the August 2022 election, which was an acronym representing Ziegler, Enos and Marinelli.

Marinelli voted for Connor as superintendent but was not named as someone the groups were looking to actively replace. Her term ends in 2026.

Conservative reaction to Connor

Many Sarasota conservative school activists favored Van Zant for his politics and military background. The same activists were also vocally against Connor, perceiving him as a leftist and worse than Asplen, though he is a registered Republican in Hillsborough County.

Several comments in The Hollow’s post in its Facebook group expressed a feeling of betrayal from a School Board they felt ignored the wishes of the people who got them elected.

“The lack of leadership in the local and state Republican parties has forced us to step up and find a candidate that will work together with their constituents…” Ashton Beaudry wrote in her Facebook post. “The Republican Party of Sarasota and the state party will not be responsible for finding our candidates. We the people, are responsible for that now.”

The Sarasota School District Transparency Project, another right-wing education Facebook group, also posted to express frustration with the board’s selection of Connor.

“How many of you wasted your whole summer to get a Conservative majority School Board elected only to immediately be thrown under the bus?” the page, which is run anonymously, posted following the superintendent selection.

In the post’s comments, the Sarasota County chapter of Moms for Liberty also questioned the actions of the board majority.

“What is going on here? Why aren’t any of these people doing what they promised all of us if we would just “flip the board”?” the group wrote.

In a Tweet responding to the group’s announcement against Rose, Flynn said that elected officials are saying one thing and they doing something different once they get into office.

“Next time around, vote those RINOs and DEMs trying to destroy our children with this absolute madness of public school indoctrination out of office. And we will,” Flynn wrote.

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