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Sarasota Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019 1 week ago

Sarasota County School Board puts Bowden on 30-day notice

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The school board will decide whether to do nothing, reprimand, suspend or fire Superintendent Todd Bowden at a special meeting at 9 a.m. Dec. 10.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

After the release of findings in a sexual-harassment investigation, the Sarasota County School Board voted Tuesday to put Superintendent Todd Bowden on a 30-day notice in advance of possible sanctions connected to the way he handled the case.

School board members said Bowden did not act according to school policies after Cheraina Bonner, an administrative assistant, made a complaint about her boss, former Chief Operations Officer Jeff Maultsby, who quit last week. 

Bowden’s contract requires the 30-day notice and a supermajority vote to set it in motion as well as a supermajority to approve a reprimand, suspension or dismissal after the 30 days are up. The notice was approved 4-1 with Vice Chair Caroline Zucker voting no.

Superintendent Todd Bowden listens to board members debate.

Board members are not under an obligation to follow through with punishment when they meet again at 9 a.m. Dec. 10.

Board Member Bridget Ziegler first recommended that the board consider putting Bowden on notice.

“We are trying to attract and retain people,” Ziegler said. “Who would want to come and work for this district? This is the moment that we stand behind Sarasota County Schools, the integrity that we have always had, and you make the tough decision.”

In an effort to make an agreement with the board, Bowden offered to step down from his role as superintendent in exchange for a 10-year contract in an executive director position overseeing district facilities.

In his proposal, Bowden would have been granted a salary of $175,000 annually, which would amount to $1.75 million by the end of his contract. Additionally, he would be granted 20 weeks of severance pay, annuity payment and reimbursement of attorney’s fees in the amount of $57,000.

Board Chair Jane Goodwin expressed concerns with his proposal, specifically the longevity of the contract.

“I don’t know of anyone in the world that gets a contract of 10 years,” Goodwin said.

Bowden said the agreement would have cost his family hundreds of thousands of dollars, as it would have reduced his salary by $32,000. Currently, he makes $207,000 annually. Given his choice, Bowden said he would prefer to stay in the superintendent role. 

After deciding not to move forward with Bowden’s proposed job shift, the board heard from more than 25 residents during a public hearing. One person spoke in Bowden’s favor: his wife.

Bowden’s attorney, Jim Gibson, was given more than an hour to speak on Bowden’s behalf. Bonner’s attorney was granted three minutes during the public hearing. Gibson presented the board with a large binder of information, which he said identified ambiguity in the report.

People in the crowd hold up "Women Matter!" signs as various speakers take to the podium.

Bowden, Zucker and Board Member Shirley Brown also expressed concerns with the investigation and stated that some of it relies on “hearsay.” 

“How did you find that out? ‘Ms. Bonner told me,’” Zucker said. “It’s not: ‘I heard it,’ [or] ‘I witnessed it.’ It’s all about what somebody told someone. That is hearsay.”

Brown said the report was too inconsistent to be used as a reason to fire a superintendent. As Zucker and Brown questioned the report’s findings, Bonner began speaking from the audience.

“You called me a liar,” Bonner said, before temporarily being escorted from the room. “You paid $72,000 for a report, yet you want to question it?”

Gibson said discrepancies over dates and how much Bonner told Bowden during each meeting forced the investigators to pick sides, and in most cases, agree with Bonner.

He also argued that Bowden acted appropriately each time he was given new information from Bonner. Gibson said that during Bowden’s initial meeting with Bonner he was not given any information about threats or sexual comments made to Bonner, just that she was receiving “stupid and immature” text messages from Maultsby.

Bowden's attorney Jim Gibson hands out binders with his findings.

Bowden said there is no question Bonner “has been wronged,” but if she had been more forthcoming with information, more immediate action would have been taken.

“I hope at the end of the day, facts are given greater weight than perception,” Bowden said.

Ultimately, Brown voted to proceed with the 30-day notice, during which time she said she would look more closely at the findings from both the investigation and Bowden’s attorney.

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