Sarasota School Board to talk reopening, superintendent search

Herald Tribune | Ryan McKinnon | June 15, 2020

The Sarasota School Board will discuss on Tuesday how to reopen schools in the fall.

The Sarasota County School Board has a hefty summer to-do list.

Hiring a new superintendent and figuring out how to reopen schools for the first time since March are at the top of that list, and on Tuesday the board will meet to discuss both issues, in addition to reviewing the district’s equity policies, following a major sexual harassment scandal last year.

Reopening schools

The district earlier this month posted two preliminary proposals for reopening schools – one in case the board could reopen schools at capacity, and one if students had to be spread out to maintain social distancing.

Last week Gov. Ron DeSantis released recommendations for reopening schools that authorized schools to reopen at full capacity in August.

While each local School Board has the authority to reopen schools as it best sees fit, the governor urged districts to take steps to “create a local safe schools plan to maintain in-person learning, which is the best method of education delivery for students.”

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Following the governor’s announcement, the board will focus on reopening schools at capacity, rather than the more drastic social-distancing proposal that included the possibility of keeping older students in remote learning at home so that younger students could be spread throughout the district’s elementary, middle and high schools.

The district removed the social-distancing plan from its website on Monday, and the plan included within the board agenda for Tuesday is for operating schools at capacity.

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The current proposal would institute safety measures within schools by possibly adjusting bell schedules to limit major transitions, encouraging teachers to move their classrooms outdoors when possible, using cafeterias and gyms as classrooms, outfitting classrooms and buses with hand sanitizer and possibly requiring students and staff to wear masks.

Board members were unanimously miffed that they had not been included in in-depth reopening discussions prior to the district releasing the plans on June 4, and Tuesday’s workshop will be their first public look at the district’s specific proposals.

Superintendent search

The School Board will review a list of recommended finalists forwarded by the Citizens’ Advisory Committee, a 25-member board-appointed body that reviewed the applicants and settled on five candidates they would like to see interviewed.Sponsored VideoSponsored by trulynolen.comSee More

The committee recommended: Brennan Asplen III, deputy superintendent, St. Johns County Schools; Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer, Miami-Dade County Public Schools; Gonzalo S. La Cava, chief of human resources, Palm Beach County School District; Peter Licata, regional superintendent, Palm Beach County School District; and Keith Oswald, deputy superintendent Palm Beach County School District.

On Tuesday, board members can narrow that list further, add candidates or approve it as is.

Once the board has settled on the candidates members would like to interview, the Florida School Boards Association will send three questions for each applicant to answer in a video format and two questions to answer in writing. The board will conduct in-person interviews will their preferred finalists between June 30 and July 2.

Read more stories by Ryan McKinnon

Equity policy review

The School Board will also review recommended changes to the district’s equity policies, which dictate how district officials investigate complaints about any form of discrimination or harassment.

The board hired Kroll, a Philadelphia-based security risk management firm, to review the policies following a sexual harassment scandal last year that led to the resignation of former chief operations officer Jeff Maultsby and former superintendent Todd Bowden.

An outside investigator concluded that Bowden had not responded appropriately when he and school board chairwoman Caroline Zucker learned that Maultsby had been sexually harassing and threatening his administrative assistant Cheraina Bonner.

The investigation found that Bowden took no action after first hearing about Bonner’s concerns in April of last year, except to tell Maultsby the details of her complaint. He did not report the incident to Human Resources for nearly a month, and when he initiated an investigation, he appointed himself the leader of the internal investigation committee, despite lacking the training to hold that role.

When Bonner’s complaint became public, Bowden defended his response, in part, based on the district equity policies.

The current policies require a complaint to be submitted in writing, something Bonner would not do because the district’s complaint forms did not include an option to report “sexual harassment” or “hostile work environment.”

Bowden ultimately negotiated a mutual separation agreement with the district and stepped down in December.

Kroll’s report identifies several weaknesses within the district’s current policies, although it does not weigh in on whether Bowden followed the correct steps.

Among the report’s findings:

– The current guidelines lack clear definitions on the types of harassment and discrimination that exist.

– The procedures currently require complaints to be submitted in writing to the Equity Coordinator. “This practice is not consistent with best practices, which is to allow complaints to be reported in a variety of ways,” the report states.

– The current procedures do not provide guidance on how complaints should be investigated.

– The district has no dating violence and abuse policy, which is a violation of Florida state law.

– The district does not have a process for training personnel on the proper methods for investigating a complaint.

The firm recommended changes to the current policy to address the major issues in the findings. The board will discuss the report during its 8 a.m. workshop and vote on advertising the proposed policy changes during the 3 p.m. meeting Tuesday.

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