Even in a nonpartisan race, the election season has cast a political shadow over the Sarasota County School Board's pursuit of a new superintendent.
Even if she emerges victorious in the Aug. 30 primary for the District 2 Sarasota County School Board seat, Teresa Mast will not be able to vote on the district’s next superintendent.
The School Board plans to select Superintendent Lori White’s replacement on Oct. 18 — about a month before Teresa Mast or incumbent Caroline Zucker will begin her term following the only contested school board race this year.
Mast doesn’t think the timing is a coincidence.
If Mast were to win on Aug. 30, she would join fellow self-described conservatives Eric Robinson, who is running unopposed for the District 3 seat, and Bridget Ziegler on the board. Mast believes the possibility of a conservative majority voting on the next superintendent motivated the current board to select Oct. 18 as the date to select a successor to the retiring White.
“If it is not politically motivated, why would you not slow it down a few weeks?” Mast said.
Mast announced her candidacy for the District 2 School Board seat in April. Later that month, the district began searching for potential applicants in earnet, eventually soliciting applications in early June. The board is in the midst of whittling down 49 applications to a list of semi-finalists before its Sept. 6 meeting.
According to Ziegler, the board’s preliminary discussions put the projected date to choose the next superintendent in January, a month before White will step down.
“Initially, the thought was to have a short list by November,” Ziegler said. “At that time, the future board would have been established and those individuals would be able to weigh in on the superintendent.”
During an April 5 workshop, Ziegler expressed her hopes that the future board would make the final decision on a superintendent. As the board got deeper into the search process, however, the deadline was moved closer.
“When we needed to put the new schedule in place, there seemed to be some urgency to fast track the timeline,” Ziegler said.
During the same April workshop, White said she intended to have the future board fill the leadership role. However, the Florida School Board Association said it would be possible to have members-elect actively participate in the vetting of a potential superintendent. White believed that would be sufficient to ensure cooperation between the new superintendent and the future board.
According to Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe, the current timeline was established due to a superintendent search in the Saint Johns County School District, which is slated to name its final candidate Oct. 11. At the time, Polk County was also searching for a new superintendent.
During the April 5 workshop, school board members expressed concern they may lose a potential candidate by waiting until after the new board was established.
“The board knew they had a very competitive district looking for a similar candidate on a timeline faster than ours,” Lempe said.
Still, Mast believes the vote was scheduled for Oct. 18 in a deliberate effort to exclude incoming conservative school board members from voting on a potential superintendent.
Though school board elections are nominally nonpartisan, Mast’s race against Zucker — also a registered Republican — has been framed as an opportunity to install a conservative majority on the board.
On Aug. 18, Sarasota County Republican State Committeeman Christian Ziegler sent an email encouraging constituents to vote for Mast in what he called the “most important race on your primary ballot.”
Christian Ziegler, who is married to Bridget Ziegler, describes Mast as “the deciding candidate.”
“With two conservatives and two union-backed board members, this race will decide which direction the Sarasota County School Board will head,” the email states.
Zucker denied allegations that the board’s decisions were politically motivated.
“Everything that happens right now, they think it’s political, but it’s not,” Zucker said.
According to school board member Shirley Brown, the timeline was also constructed to allow out-of-state applicants the opportunity to make moving arrangements if selected. Though incoming school board members will not get a formal say in picking White’s replacement, if Mast were to prevail Aug. 30, both Brown and Zucker said Mast’s and Robinson’s input will be taken into consideration when selecting the next superintendent.
“I have the knowledge necessary to make this decision, but I would be open to hearing comments from her if she wins the election,” Zucker said.
Robinson has participated in discussions as the board prepares a contract for White’s potential replacement.
As for the vote, he said he trusts the standing board to make the final decision.
“I trust them in picking the right person,” Robinson said. “I really want to vote on the contract.”
However, Mast is not content with that role in the decision-making process if she wins. She wants the timeline to be rearranged so the new superintendent is selected after Nov. 22, the date on which new board members will be sworn into office.
“It doesn’t count for anything unless I’m on the board,” Mast said.
Bridget Ziegler also believes the process should be slowed down. She understands that this issue cuts both ways, and others may see her stance as motivated by the prospect of a conservative school board majority. She says that’s not the case. After the election, she plans to suggest extending the search for a new superintendent — regardless of the makeup of the new board.
“Being blended with an election, it’s frustrating,” Ziegler said. “It could be perceived as political, and it’s really not.”