Sarasota School Board set to discuss superintendent search at next meeting

Herald-Tribune | By Steven Walker | January 16, 2023

The Sarasota County School Board is scheduled to discuss the upcoming superintendent search and appointing an interim to the position at its upcoming meeting Jan. 17, according to the posted agenda.

The meeting follows the hasty removal of the district’s previous superintendent, Brennan Asplen, who served the district since 2020. The acting superintendent ahead of Tuesday’s meeting was Chris Renouf, who was an assistant superintendent before Asplen’s removal. Renouf was appointed to the position immediately following Asplen’s acceptance of his separation agreement Dec. 13, but was only intended to hold the position until a more permanent option could be found following the holiday break.

Potential appointees to the position were unclear as of Friday, but the board is scheduled to meet for a work session ahead of Tuesday’s meeting where it will discuss the appointment along with more details about the superintendent search.

School Board Chair Bridget Ziegler said the goal would be to have a new superintendent vetted and hired by the start of the 2023-24 school year. The board could move to appoint an interim superintendent on Tuesday, but also could hold off on a vote once candidates are presented to give board members the opportunity to meet with them before the next scheduled meeting. Delaying the vote until the next School Board meeting would also give the public more notice for a potential interim appointment, she said.

Chair, Bridget Ziegler voted to move forward with Asplen's separation during the Sarasota County school board meeting Tuesday night Nov. 29, 2022.
Chair, Bridget Ziegler voted to move forward with Asplen’s separation during the Sarasota County School board meeting Tuesday night Nov. 29, 2022. THOMAS BENDER/HERALD-TRIBUNE

On Nov. 22, a new conservative School Board majority of Ziegler, Robyn Marinelli, Karen Rose and Tim Enos was sworn in and immediately moved to terminate Asplen’s contract. The superintendent ultimately stepped away following weeks of negotiations for a separation agreement which cost the district upwards of $170,000 before the cost of benefits.

Tom Edwards, a board member who sits on the other end of the 4-1 majority, said the new majority has lost the confidence of the public with its removal of Asplen. He said that potential appointees he’s spoken to expressed fear of being fired by the board majority in a similar way to Asplen.

Edwards said he’s unsure if the district can find someone of Asplen’s caliber because of the political circumstances of his removal. There needs to be community input, potentially with an appointed committee, he said.

“If (the board majority) have self-actualization to the damage that they’ve caused, then they can begin to repair and heal the community,” Edwards said. “But if they’re going to be omnipotent like they were in the (Asplen) termination, we’ll never get good people to step up.”

In 2020, when the district hired Asplen, the nationwide search involved the Florida School Board Association and community input. It remains to be seen if the district plans to use a firm to help search for a superintendent, Ziegler said.

At the Dec. 13 School Board meeting, several board members expressed a desire to have some type of community input for this search. Ziegler said it would be best for the district to have a search committee consisting of board-appointed community members that bring forward candidates for recommendation.

“I’m interested in input from the entire community right now,” Board member Rose said. “When we do get to selecting a superintendent, committing to how this district has always done that with a full community process.”

Ironically, the board was criticized during its public meetings over Asplen’s termination for lack of transparency in the abrupt and, initially unexplained handling of it.

It’s unclear if the district will use the Florida School Boards Association in the upcoming superintendent search, but Ziegler and Rose have expressed reservations about the organization before. In a previous interview, Ziegler said while she respects the FSBA, it “remains to be seen” whether the board seeks the organization’s services in helping find a superintendent.

Ziegler is the director of school board programs for the Leadership Institute, an organization training conservatives to run for office. A school board training offered by Ziegler on Dec. 10 was framed as a direct alternative to the FSBA training.

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