Far-right groups rally against Sarasota Schools budget, calling it ‘woke’

Sarasota Herald-Tribune | By Steven Walker | August 1, 2023

Ahead of the Sarasota County School Board’s vote on its tentative property tax rate and budget for the next fiscal year Tuesday evening, far-right political groups rallied online against what they said was funding for social-emotional learning, an issue conservatives oppose along with critical race theory, diversity and LGBTQ+ topics in schools.

The Sarasota School District’s initial budget, which totals more than $1.5 billion, had about $57 million allocated for what a bullet point in the district’s strategic plan said was to “Enhance social-emotional learning and supports provided to students to promote belonging, dignity, and inclusion,” according to agenda documents. 

A newer version filed with the board’s agenda strikes out this sentence.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is considered by many district teachers to be important for elementary-age students’ development of skills necessary to engage in the classroom and socially, especially after COVID-19 affected in-person interaction during crucial instructional years. 

Bridget Ziegler, the board chairwoman, voted against the budget during the initial vote to advertise the budget ahead of Tuesday’s public hearing. In an interview with the Observer, Ziegler said she voted against the budget because she didn’t feel it was in compliance with state law.

In March, the district suspended its “Character Strong” program following some opposition to its use of SEL to teach students positive character traits and change school culture. Ziegler spearheaded its removal, calling it “a complete distraction” from academic achievement.

The 1776 Project PAC, a conservative political action committee that endorsed Bridget Ziegler, Robyn Marinelli and Tim Enos during their elections last fall, posted to Twitter calling on their supporters to email the board urging members to vote against the budget because it advanced a “woke curriculum.”

The conservative “Sarasota County School District Transparency Project” Facebook group posted a screenshot of the 1776 Project PAC’s post, adding that “any School Board Member that votes for this will never be able to run on a Conservative platform and will never get meaningful endorsements or Parent support like they did in 2022.”

“This allegedly conservative majority school board has been less than impressive, so far. Only months after being elected they voted unanimously to keep CRT in Sarasota Florida schools. They allow unelected officials from leftist nonprofits unfettered access to students,” the group posted to Twitter.

Moms for Liberty, an activist group labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an “anti-government extremist group”, also sent a message to its email list in Sarasota County urging supporters to email School Board members about the budget and a “Mental Health Allocation Plan” in the budget.

Ziegler was one of the founders of Moms for Liberty and has been at the forefront of conservative activism with her involvement with the Leadership Institute.

“These programs are not designed to ‘help more students read’. These programs are designed to indoctrinate students with the use of social-emotional learning and infringe on our community’s parental rights to conduct the upbringing of our own children,” Moms for Liberty’s message read.

The School Board meets Tuesday, Aug. 1 at 5:15 p.m. to further discuss the tentative property tax rate and budget.

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