A 4-1 decision by the newly instated Sarasota School Board resulted in the first stages of superintendent Brennan Asplen’s termination. Parents, teachers, students and concerned taxpayers swarmed the Sarasota School Board Building for the board’s special meeting on Nov. 29—many not even able to get into the building.
The motion to terminate Asplen was offered by board member Karen Rose, and was supported by everyone on the board except Democratic member Thomas Edwards. After that meeting and through the Thanksgiving holiday, the Board’s General Counsel and Asplen’s own attorney negotiated a separation agreement, which was the subject of the five-hour-long School Board Meeting, packed with supporters of Asplen.
The anxious crowd huddled around two TV screens, which flanked the doors of the School Board chambers, as it live-streamed the events happening beyond the closed doors.
Police officers guarded the chambers, and occasionally would yell “I-15” or another number into the crowd, and would guide the awaiting person into the building—as if they were customers at a deli-counter.
Most attendees were dressed in red attire indicating their support for Asplen, some sporting the non-profit “Support our Schools” logo.
Throughout the week, “Support our Schools” sent out newsletters to encourage people to come out and speak at the meeting in support of Asplen. The organization focuses on advocating for public education for all students regardless of class, race, gender, sexuality or other background, and emphasizes a focus on a modern, inclusive education.
The bulk of the lengthy meeting was taken up by dozens of public comments. Some spoke in support of the board’s decision, but many were critical of the hasty decision and questioned how four members of the board were able to move in unison to terminate the superintendent with no reason given, raising suspicion that Florida Sunshine Laws may have been violated.
“Dr. Asplen has gotten us through some really tough, hard times,” Melanie Lipton, a parent in Sarasota County, expressed. “Haven’t we had enough? And who do you have in mind to replace him?”
“Why wouldn’t he be given a chance?” Kimberly Rhoden asked, a long-time volunteer at Sarasota District Schools, raising the question of why new board members who had barely met Asplen would agree to fire him.
Another commenter, Sheila Weiss, asked “how this occurred so quickly at your first meeting, in unison,” and suggested that “it appears to the public that there must have been discussions occurring behind the scenes in violation of the Sunshine laws.” Weiss also wondered if “this decision is really independent of partisan politics,” as other school boards around Florida, with Gov. Ron DeSantis-endorsed members, “are doing the exact same thing.”
Other commenters, including Michelle Posey, spoke in support of the board’s decision and expressed how Asplen was “the puppet of Jane [Goodwin],” the former School Board Chair before Bridget Ziegler took her place.
Alexa Spiegelman, a member of the right-wing organization Moms for Liberty in Sarasota—founded by Ziegler—told the board that she hopes they “won’t back down and empower the mob mentality” and that “we need all Jane’s tentacles removed from our school district once and for all.”
Board members themselves offered a range of comments, but they stuck by their initial decisions.
Newly-elected board member and former Police Chief, Tim Enos said that he “would rather have somebody tell me, straight up, that I don’t agree with something,” and that Asplen simply didn’t fit that description.
Thomas Edwards, the only Democrat on the board, held no punches about his feelings about the other four board members, expressing that they broke campaign promises and “[lied] to the community, by keeping to yourself that you were planning on firing the superintendent.”
Ziegler offered a very neutral response, alluding to a desire to simply want a change in the school district and that the previous board “did not serve this district,” and thus the superintendent chosen by them had to go.
Former teacher and newly elected board-member, Robyn Marinelli, refused to make a comment. Karen Rose—the board member who initially proposed the motion—also refused to make a comment. Rose is also a former teacher, former principal and Executive Director of Middle Schools in Sarasota County.
“I have a feeling I’m gonna be fired after tonight,” Asplen stated bluntly when it was his turn to comment.
“I spend more time on politics and nonsense than anything else,” Asplen expressed. “I can’t even spend time on a lot of the instructional because we’re dealing with this kind of nonsense.”
Asplen continued on to encourage the community and teachers to continue working hard at what they do.
“You guys are going to just keep going, you’re on a great trajectory,” he said.
The board motioned to continue negotiations regarding Asplen’s resignation, including a severance package, rather than the alternative of voting to terminate his contract without cause. The meeting was adjourned shortly afterwards.
The same concerned stakeholders who entered into the meeting with passion will now wait for the drudgery of deliberation to deliver them a decision they likely saw coming.
Meanwhile, in other Florida counties like Charlotte, Brevard and Broward, parallel events are taking place. Newly sworn-in School Boards—many endorsed by DeSantis and running on platforms of “keeping politics out of school”—immediately voting to fire the old superintendent and making drastic changes to the districts’ administration practices.
The key question still lingering in the air is what this new school board administration is truly capable of and how it will come to affect the students, teachers, staff and parents of Sarasota County Schools.