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Sarasota Wednesday, May 4, 2022 1 week ago

School board, part II: How to close the chasm

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Rumination on Sarasota County School Board Chair Jane Goodwin and public comments.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

Much of what has resulted between Goodwin and frequent school board critic Melissa Bakondy can be categorized as a matter of style. Or, more precisely, two styles that don’t mesh well. And communication, lack thereof.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

If you have ever attended many public meetings of city and county commissions, school boards, state legislative committees, perhaps even mosquito boards, often you will find that these bodies have a regular watchdog, a person who shows up and speaks at every meeting no matter what.

These watchdogs, or “gadflies,” come in all kinds: annoying, respectful, sarcastic, funny, looney, agitating, confrontational, sometimes just downright, persistently trouble-making. But one of the most-common characteristics of them is passion. They have a passion about a subject or about the government they are watchdogging. They have passionate beliefs about what they think is right. The fact they are physically present tells you they care — more than most people.

No doubt, you have seen one of these watchdogs. And likewise, you have seen the faces of the commissioners who see these people come to the microphone during public comment. You know exactly what is going through their minds: “Oh gawd, here we go again.”

That’s the impression that comes over the school board dais when Melissa Bakondy walks to the podium. To some, Bakondy has become the gadfly. To many others, she is the voice of the people.

If you’ve watched her, you can see how her style can get under board members’ skin, especially that of the three Democratic members, Goodwin, Shirley Brown and Tom Edwards. She asks them for explanations, mostly in an even tone.

At the April 5 board meeting, she began her remarks: “Why do we allow Pride flags, celebrating sexual perversion, to hang in the classroom? These are sexually suggestive flags that could be offensive to some people. I believe these would fall under the hostile environment and sexual harassment policy in 2.71.”

Bakondy told us: “I don’t try to have a style. I try to be factual.”

She told us she began her interest in the school board in spring 2020 when mask mandates began. At the time, her four children were in Sarasota public schools. She disagreed with the mandate.

“Anger developed,” she said.

After that, she said, “There was a wave of everything”: BLM, CRT issues. In the summer, there was anti-bias training, LGBTQ month. In fall 2020, her third grade child came to her and asked about seeing a Pride flag in an online supplemental curriculum program.

All of this fueled her passion. What’s her goal? “To protect the innocence of our children,” she said. “I’m passionate about this, but they don’t seem to listen.”

To some, Bakondy has become talking wallpaper. To Goodwin, it seems, Bakondy has become an annoyance. You can sense there is an unreconcilable chasm between them.

That can be closed. Asked if she has ever had a one-on-one conversation with any of the school board members, Bakondy said “No.”

In the confines of school board meetings, where speakers are relegated to two minutes, frank communication and building trust are virtually impossible. Face-to-face meetings can accomplish a lot.

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