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Sarasota Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021 1 week ago

A conversation with School Board newcomer Tom Edwards

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Edwards was elected to the District 3 seat.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for length.

In August, two new members were elected to the Sarasota County School Board, and in November, those members took their seats.

District 3 representative Tom Edwards won his seat with 53,362 votes, or 52% of the vote. He beat incumbent Eric Robinson, who held the seat since 2016.

The Sarasota Observer caught up with Edwards after his first few weeks on the board to talk about current issues facing the district and what he hopes to focus on in the coming months.

What are some key issues you feel the district is facing and how would you like to address them moving forward? 

Overall, I think the district is in extremely good health. The people that I’ve met at the schools, even in the midst of a pandemic, are focused on the children’s education and their spirit is high.

Now with COVID-19, the idea is to figure out how we begin to get more strategic and start looking outward into best practices and incorporating those and new innovations, whether it’s within remote learning or new curriculum, so that we can be proactive instead of reactive.

What do you believe the true role of a board member is and how do you plan to achieve that throughout your tenure?

I love the fact that it’s five board members, five people who come from theoretically five backgrounds that people thought were interesting and qualified enough to provide executive oversight of the school district. The system that’s set up is for five different backgrounds to collaborate on agendas and topics and voting to create consensus. So I’d like to see it utilized, and [I] don’t think it has in the past because people were in their own camps and had their own agendas.

You can’t just say you want to make change; you have to move in and out of the community to make the change with teachers and students. When people ask me how many kids I have in the district, I say 43,000, and that’s the mindset I hope to continue throughout my term.

Because of COVID-19, many parents have more questions and concerns. What can be done to ensure a positive relationship with them?

I think that the perception among parents is good to high. One of the things I’ve been doing is visiting schools, and at each, the principal has such an amazing relationship with the parents. It’s not 100%, but a quick temperature read shows that parents are really connected and have good relationships with the faculty.

But now we need to focus on communication, communication, communication. We have 77% of parents who regularly check the parent portal, and we need to get to 100% and focus on creating the portal in more than one language. 

Due to concurrent learning, teachers are experiencing a heavier workload. What steps need to be taken to create a healthy work environment?

One thing that is important for me personally is to develop a relationship with the teachers’ union, so that we are up to date on issues. I also think we need more program development as it relates to remote learning or concurrent learning because I think that’s the No. 1 source of stress for our teachers.

It’s hard for concurrent teachers to prep and plan and be prepared for having two classrooms running simultaneously, so I think program development can bring the ones that are having the hardest time up to speed quicker. 

One of the key issues facing any large district is equity. What new steps need to be taken to create equity throughout the district?

That is an example of where I think the district needs to be more proactive. We’re moving in the right direction, but when we have students coming into the meeting and asking for their curriculums to be examined, that’s an alarm signal to me that we need to get in and do better.

We can do that as a board, supporting new and innovative ideas. We also have a rich, diverse community of all backgrounds because Sarasota is a magnet for the best of the best. 

In the past few years, the board has been split 3-2 on many votes which may have caused some tension among board members. What needs to happen to ensure good board relations moving forward? 

We’re five people that are going to have five opinions. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m hoping that it’s not always the same three and the same two. We all can’t agree on everything all the time, and I’m OK with that as long as when we disagree, we walk away united as a board. 

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