Sarasota School Board poised to hire ex-Hillsdale College curriculum specialist as consultant

Sarasota Herald-Tribune | By Steven Walker | March 29, 2023

The Sarasota County School District appears poised to hire for a wide-ranging review a consulting firm whose founder was a leader at Hillsdale College, a private Michigan-based Christian liberal arts college that has become a conservative touchstone for educational issues.

The district has posted for consideration next week two draft contracts with Vermilion Education, one for consulting services to the board and another for a “District Improvement Study” that would include a review of the district’s textbooks, library books, lesson plans, assignments, professional development, collective bargaining agreements, strategic plan, discipline policies, transparency and parental access policies, among other aspects.

Under the consulting contract, Vermilion would examine proposed policies, programs, curriculum, and sit in on external candidate interviews for district administrative, support and classroom positions.

Vermilion was founded by Jordan Adams, who worked as a civic education specialist at Hillsdale College and is named in the contract. Adams was previously consulted by the Florida Department of Education to review textbooks and worked with Hillsdale College to expand its charter school network with the controversial Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum.

Hillsdale College, located in Hillsdale, Michigan, has been active in conservative education politics. DeSantis spoke at Hillsdale’s National Leadership Seminar last year and has tapped the school to help reshape Florida’s education system. DeSantis’ administration referred to turning New College of Florida in Sarasota into the “Hillsdale of the South” when the governor launched a transformation of the progressive public college earlier this year.

The Sarasota School District has earned an “A” rating from the state every year dating back to 2004, when the state started assigning grades. Nevertheless the last several months have seen considerable upheaval for the district.

The proposed agreement with Vermilion follows the School Board’s decision to remove Character Strong, a program that fulfilled a state-mandated requirement for a character education program that used social and emotional learning to teach students positive character traits and change school culture.

It also comes after the board’s move to force out Brennan Asplen as superintendent late last year, fill his position with an interim leader and hire a firm to seek a permanent replacement.

It’s not clear from materials posted with the School Board’s meeting agenda for next week how much the contracts with Vermilion would cost. According to the drafts, the consulting contract would last until Aug. 10 and cost the district about $20,000, while the improvement study would go to July 10 and had a “TBD” next to the contract total.

The idea to hire Vermilion was brought forward by board Chairwoman Bridget Ziegler, who first mentioned Vermilion at the end of a four-hour board workshop on March 21. She said the firm would keep the district from “distractions.”

“I think it would be an opportunity for a consultant to … help us with certain things when it comes to keeping us away from the fire,” Ziegler said.

Ziegler said the consultant could help “eliminate the controversial areas” and not tie the hands of teachers.

“The pendulum has been swinging back and forth and my goal is to rid ourselves so we’re narrowed and focused on academics,” she said.

The chairwoman did not clarify her remarks and wasn’t immediately available for an interview.

DeSantis and the state Legislature over the past year have implemented controversial policies surrounding the discussion of sexual orientation and gender and the teaching of critical race theory, in classrooms and books.

At the workshop, board member Tom Edwards said hiring the firm could work against the board majority’s stated mission to unify the community, pointing out the firm’s ties to Hillsdale College.

“Forget what your feelings are about Hillsdale, or otherwise. You can see the dissent that’s happening here locally around New College,” Edwards said. “And to bring this into Sarasota County schools at this time, I think is a huge mistake.”

He said he didn’t have an issue with what Vermilion would be doing, just the fact that it would be Vermilion doing it.

It was unclear as of Wednesday whether Vermilion Education would consult on the district’s pending superintendent search. However, Ziegler previously said the district hopes to have the next superintendent hired by the start of the next school year in August, and the contract aligns with that timeframe.

According to the draft contract, Vemilion would not have access to the names of students or faculty, and would not be able to recommend hiring a candidate for a district position or recommend termination for any current district employee. The firm would also present a study report and improvement plan to the board, and answer questions about the report at a School Board meeting.

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