Superintendent’s fate in question as new Sarasota School Board members set to be sworn in

Sarasota Herald-Tribune | By Steven Walker | November 22, 2022

While Sarasota County students have the week off for Thanksgiving break, the school district is still buzzing as a new board majority will be sworn in Tuesday at its meeting at Venice High School, with speculation swirling over what it will mean for Superintendent Brennan Asplen.

The incoming Sarasota School Board represents an ideological shift, and follows an August election that saw conservative candidates Tim Enos, Robyn Marinelli and the incumbent Bridget Ziegler notch victories. What was considered a 3-2 more liberal-leaning majority will become a 4-1 conservative-leaning majority, with Enos, Marinelli, Ziegler and current board member Karen Rose on one end and Tom Edwards on the other.

While Asplen’s performance was not a focal point of the summer School Board campaign, Ziegler and Rose gave critical reviews of him during his yearly evaluation, while Edwards rated him as “highly effective,” which was his overall evaluation score.

Now, the two new board members who are expected to align with Ziegler and Rose will take their seats, and would have the votes to fire the superintendent with a simple majority vote.

The new board’s first opportunity to do so would be Tuesday. 

Supporters of Ziegler, Enos, Marinelli and Rose have openly called on the board to fire Asplen. Facebook posts from an anonymously run page called the Sarasota County School District Transparency Project have advocated for the superintendent’s removal, and recently posted about the removal of a superintendent in South Carolina — insinuating the same should be done in Sarasota.

“The new board knows what to do,” the post read.

Asked how she would vote on a motion to fire Asplen, Ziegler declined to comment. She said that if it were to come to firing the superintendent, there should be more discussion than during one board meeting.

“Something as important that very much warrants a thoughtful discussion, not a knee-jerk reaction,” Ziegler said.

Finding a new superintendent would be an arduous endeavor, she said, and the board would need to have a plan in place. Ziegler also said she did not appreciate how Asplen responded to his evaluation during the board meeting Nov. 1. 

“How one chooses to respond to any kind of constructive feedback or even constructive criticism really does say a lot about the style of leadership and whether they choose to seize the opportunity of areas of improvement or not,” she said.

During the meeting where the board approved his evaluation, Asplen spent about 30 minutes refuting each point in Rose’s and Ziegler’s negative evaluations. Ziegler and Rose had criticized the superintendent for the public’s behavior during the board’s public comment periods, and the actions of former School Board attorney Dan DeLeo, who doesn’t report to the superintendent.

Asplen also took heat over the district’s mask mandate in 2021, though it was the School Board majority who set that policy.

Edwards, who sat as the vice chair of the last board and will be the only remaining liberal-leaning board member after Tuesday, said he wouldn’t vote to remove Asplen. He said firing a superintendent after consecutive “highly effective” ratings would be a mistake.

Marinelli, Rose and Enos could not be reached for comment prior to publication. 

Barry Dubin, the executive director of the Sarasota Classified Teachers Association, said firing Asplen would send the message that politics comes before education in Sarasota County, and make it more difficult to find another candidate.

“It looks to me like this is more about politics than it is about education,” Dubin said. “This new School Board was supposed to deliver us from politics and instead it seems like they’re getting more and more (political).”

Ziegler, Enos and Marinelli have also emphasized wanting to change the district’s public comment policy, which could happen during the first few meetings of the new board. 

As of Monday, public comment at School Board meetings is broken into two sections, one for agenda-based comments and one after Board business for general public comment with people given two minutes to speak. Enos and others have called on the Board to combine the sections and increase the time for each person.

The agenda for Tuesday’s meeting showed just procedural reorganization items, such as electing a new chair and vice chair of the board. 

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