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Sarasota Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019 2 weeks ago

Bowden officially done, search for interim superintendent begins

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The Sarasota County School Board unanimously approved a proposed separation agreement
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

Begin healing” and “Restore the trust” were key phrases Tuesday afternoon as the Sarasota County School Board took final action to remove Superintendent Todd Bowden from his role and turned the focus to the search for an interim superintendent.

The board unanimously approved a separation agreement that places Bowden on paid administrative leave until Dec. 31. He will also be paid a lump sum of 20 weeks of severance pay and $65,000 in legal fee reimbursement.

In the past, board members Caroline Zucker and Shirley Brown expressed concerns about firing Bowden following criticism he faced since Cheraina Bonner, the administrative assistant to former Chief Operations Officer Jeff Maultsby, filed a complaint against the superintendent. In the complaint, Bonner said her complaints of sexual harassment by Maultsby, who resigned earlier this month, were ignored.

Brown said she thought Bowden acted according to the district’s policies each time he was given new information and that therefore, the district did not have a case for termination with cause.

“It’s hard for me to say, ‘Dr. Bowden, you did wrong,’ when in fact the employee didn’t share everything that came out later,” Brown said.

However, after seeing what both Brown and Zucker called a “loss of confidence" in Bowden, they voted to accept the agreement. 

“One of the hardest conversations I ever had is I called him that day and told him: ‘Dr. Bowden, I do believe that it’s time for you to go. I don’t believe that you can regain the confidence of this district and this community,’” Brown said.

Brown said she’d like to eventually hire a human resources staffer who reports to the board, and not to a district administrator, to ensure the independence of future HR investigations. Additionally, she said she’d like to hire a victims advocate.

Board members Bridget Ziegler and Eric Robinson said they thought the board had reason to fire Bowden with cause, an action that would have required a supermajority vote.

Ziegler said she was not happy with the financial outlay connected with the exit agreement, particularly the $65,000 for his legal fees.

“There is a cost of doing business,” Ziegler said. “But I believe any day further with Dr. Bowden at the helm will be hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of lost productivity, which equates to a loss of taxpayer dollars.”

The board will now turn its attention to finding an interim superintendent by Dec. 10 to serve while a nationwide search is launched for a permanent administrator.

All board members said the new superintendent, whether it be the interim or the future superintendent, needs to be someone who can help heal the community and restore trust in the district.

Some proposed names include former Sarasota County School District Superintendent Lori White and former Seminole County Superintendent Bill Vogel. Zucker, Brown and Goodwin showed support for Vogel during a workshop Tuesday morning. Robinson and Ziegler weren't opposed to Vogel, but they said they'd like to slow the process down so the best candidate is chosen. 

After an interim superintendent is selected, members will turn the focus to finding a superintendent, which could take anywhere from six months to a year, Robinson said.

Robinson said he’d like to begin the process of restoring trust before bringing a superintendent in to “increase the probability of high-quality superintendents.”

“If we put an ad out today, I don’t think we’re going to get the best superintendent that we want,” Robinson said. “I think we have a lot of work to do.”

In the meantime, Assistant Superintendent and Chief Financial Officer Mitsi Corcoran has been named acting superintendent. Corcoran is a certified public accountant and has served as the district’s CFO since 2007.

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