Sarasota’s School Board flipped to a conservative majority: What happens next?

Sarasota Herald-Tribune | By Steven Walker | August 26, 2022

Key Points

  • New Board majority wants to change public comment policy
  • Gov. Ron DeSantis played a major role in the Republican turnout to elect School Board members
  • Tom Edwards, the remaining liberal board member, said he looks forward to seeing how the majority unifies the community

On the Fox and Friends First show early Thursday, host Todd Piro called on his next guests to appear before a national TV audience: Bridget Ziegler, Tim Enos and Robyn Marinelli.

“Just how liberal was the Sarasota School Board before you won?” Piro asked. 

The three newly elected Sarasota County School Board members sat just as they campaigned this cycle — together. It was a striking visual reminder of the dramatic change resulting from the Aug. 23 election that shifted policy control of the school district.

The three discussed the election, plans for the future and their thoughts on Gov. Ron DeSantis in the five-minute segment aired on Fox News at 4:30 a.m.

“We live in a conservative county, and it has had a liberal majority for decades,” Ziegler said in the interview. “It doesn’t line up to the community which we’re representing.”

Bridget Ziegler, Tim Enos and Robyn Marinelli will be sworn in Nov. 15

When the three are sworn in Nov. 15, the Sarasota School Board will see a shift in ideology in the form of a 4-1 conservative supermajority.

Previously, the board had a 3-2 liberal-leaning majority, with Ziegler and Karen Rose on the losing end of divisive votes, one that was reinforced in the 2020 election, when Tom Edwards knocked out former Sarasota Republican Party Chairman Eric Robinson.

Boisterous critics would attend School Board meetings to voice concerns over issues such as critical race theory, alleged sexually explicit content in books and COVID-19-related masking policies in schools under the umbrella of parental rights.

Now, the Republican-majority board reflects the views of such speakers.

Some individuals who have been active in local school issues recently have ties to the Proud Boys, a far right extremist group, and were involved in promoting the three conservative school board candidates, raising concerns about what other influences the board will have. Those concerns flared again after Ziegler and Marinelli were shown in pictures celebrating their election night victory with at least one, and possibly two, individuals who are believed to be Proud Boys.

Marinelli decided not to attend a meet and greet event during her campaign after the Herald-Tribune wrote that a Proud Boy was helping to host the gathering.

That same Proud Boy, James Hoel, attended a rally, in his Proud Boys shirt, that Gov. Ron DeSantis hosted with Ziegler, Enos and Marinelli right before the primary election.

Although his face is partially obscured in photos, some Herald-Tribune readers say they identified the same man in a picture taken at the election night party for Ziegler, Enos and Marinelli. Another alleged Proud Boy also was in the photo, which his wife confirmed in a social media post.

“Yes, that’s my wonderful husband in the pic,” wrote Melissa Radovich, the wife of Nick Radovich. 

Voters in Sarasota and Manatee counties cast their ballots in the 2022 Florida primary election on August 23. Mike Lang/Herald-Tribune

Marinelli earlier told the Herald-Tribune that “I don’t even know any Proud Boys. If they walked in front of me, I wouldn’t be able to tell you who they are. I don’t identify like that.” She did not respond to a request for comment about the Proud Boys’ presence at her election night party.

Ziegler called the Proud Boys “a menace.”

“They aren’t involved with the work and they played no part in the win, but they attend public events and try to photobomb every photo just to secure attention and headlines,” Ziegler said in a text message, adding: “These guys who show up — are total yahoos, irrelevant — and need to be called out. Why you guys continue to give them any relevance is beyond me.”

Individuals wearing shirts with "Proud Boys" on the back sit at a Sarasota School Board meeting May 13.
Individuals wearing shirts with “Proud Boys” on the back sit at a Sarasota School Board meeting May 13. Thomas Bender/Herald-Tribune

Melissa Radovich in her social media post contradicted Ziegler’s claim that alleged Proud Boys didn’t help her campaign. Radovich wrote that her husband helped the three conservative candidates “fly.”

Radovich noted that her husband drove a truck with a billboard around attacking Marinelli’s opponent and “handed out flyers, and got out over 700 yard signs out… so if he wants to be in a victory photo.. I think he deserves it.”

Stances on education

Critical race theory, a graduate-level academic framework that asserts racism is systemic in the U.S.’s laws and institutions, is not taught in Florida’s schools according to several teachers. Ziegler previously argued that its themes permeate K-12 education regardless.

Also, a lawsuit against the school board regarding alleged sexually explicit books in schools was dismissed Aug. 22. The judge ruled the plaintiff had no standing.

In her Fox News appearance, Ziegler characterized the new conservative majority as “common sense” and “parent-focused.” A champion of parental rights in education, she had a hand in the Parent’s Bill of Rights legislation signed by the governor in 2021, and has had a growing profile in the conservative education movement in Florida and nationwide.

She pointed to DeSantis’ stances on education issues and said the election reflected the community’s desire for change as reasons for the conservative candidates’ surge to victory.

“The fact of the matter is that they believe and they support Gov. DeSantis,” she said. “They support our being focused on students and supporting parental rights, and making sure your public school districts stay in their lane and educate their children.”

Sarasota County School superintendent Dr. Brennan Asplen, in center, listens intently to public comment   during the Sarasota County School Board meeting on Friday, May, 13, 2022.
Sarasota County School superintendent Dr. Brenan Asplen, in center, listens intently to public comment during the Sarasota County School Board meeting on Friday, May 13, 2022. Thomas Bender/Herald-Tribune

Among the challenges ahead for the School Board will be maintaining the district’s coveted A grade and overall longstanding high rating for academic achievement in the state. It also faces on ongoing tight labor market for teachers that is affecting schools nationwide, and managing the new strategic plan put forward by Superintendent Brennan Asplen. The district also has a looming schools construction plan to deal with enrollment growth and the upheaval that can follow adjusting school attendance boundaries.

Part of addressing some parents’ complaints about input to the School Board and building trust is expected to be changing the public meeting comment policy. As it stands, there are two public comment sections during board meetings with an agenda-based one before board business and a general comment one after new business.

Conservative parents have been critical of the change, saying it restricts their voice in meetings. It reached a boiling point when a speaker was forcibly removed from a meeting and the board adjourned another meeting early because of a rowdy crowd.

Sarasota District 1 School Board candidate Bridget Ziegler spoke to voters before Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took the stage at the Sahib Shriner Event Center on Sunday as part of his Education Agenda Tour across the state. MATT HOUSTON/HERALD-TRIBUNE
Sarasota District 1 School Board candidate Bridget Ziegler spoke to voters before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took the stage at the Sahib Shriner Event Center on Sunday as part of his Education Agenda Tour across the state. Matt Houston/Herald-Tribune

Marinelli said in her Fox News interview she wants to move to immediately change the policy back to three minutes per person and before board business. The change would make it so parents with kids don’t have to stay at meetings for hours to have their voices heard, she said.

“They were tired of how the parents were being treated at School Board meetings by the majority,” she said. “They were not allowed to speak or their time was cut and they were fed up.”

Enos said in an interview with the Herald-Tribune that he wants to do a full policy review to see where parents can be involved more. Part of that review would include making the district’s budget more accessible to the public.

The tentative district budget for 2022-23 was upwards of $1.35 billion, and the only way to access the budget book is through a link to a 184-page PDF on the district’s finance department webpage.

Enos said the district should always strive to lead academically, and that starts with finding creative ways to recruit teachers to the district amid the teacher shortage.

“We have everything that we need in order to make sure that we always stay at the top and that we always try to lead when it comes to education and improve our scores,” he said.

Tom Edwards stands as the only remaining liberal board member

Edwards, the School Board vice chairman, who played a part in the public comment policy change, now stands as the only remaining liberal board member. He emphasized that his focus, regardless of board makeup, remains advocating for the best interests of teachers and students in the district.

“I remain committed to protecting our teachers and students and finding all of the solutions necessary for the teacher shortage and student outcomes for all students, Edwards said. “At the same time, it’s a reset. I look forward to seeing their plans for unifying the community and government.”

Edwards faced criticism during the campaign from conservative groups over his comments at a left-leaning educational panel where he said he was “woke” and that there were forces at work within school boards to represent left-leaning interests.

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