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Sarasota Thursday, Sep. 1, 2016 2 years ago

School Board race: Divided by party lines

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Caroline Zucker will continue to sit on the school board, but fears linger regard political parties' participation in school board races.
by: Anna Brugmann Community Editor

Sarasota County School Board races are technically nonpartisan, but this year’s race between incumbent Caroline Zucker and challenger Teresa Mast drew clear partisan lines.

Voters faced the choice of Mast, whose victory would have create a potential 3-2 conservative majority on the board, or the status quo that would have come from Zucker retaining her seat and leaving the board largely intact.

As precincts reported results Tuesday night, it became clear that voters opted for the status quo.

Zucker won her seat for a fifth term, joined by other longtime board members Jane Goodwin and Shirley Brown. The three veteran board members will serve with relative newcomers Bridget Ziegler, elected in 2014, and Eric Robinson, who will serve after winning the seat board member Frank Kovach is vacating in an uncontested race.

“This is education,” Zucker said Tuesday night. “It’s the future of our country. Both parties should have a say in this. That’s why I’m really proud that both parties did support me.”

But as the news spread through Mast’s watch party at Gecko’s Grill & Pub on Cattlemen Road, Mast stood on a barstool to address her family and friends. She expressed gratitude for their support throughout her campaign, but later, she expressed frustration to the Sarasota Observer about her loss.

“The Democratic Party stepped out of line,” she said.

Zucker, a registered Republican, attracted criticism in early August for receiving funds from Future Generations Inc., a PAC created by liberal commentator Susan Nilon, and receiving endorsements from the Sarasota County Democratic Party. The Democratic Party urged Sarasota County residents to vote for Zucker in a Facebook post Aug. 3.

“If her opponent were to win, the pro-voucher/privatization forces would have control of our school board,” the local Democratic Party’s post read.

“I think you had two sides,” Republican Committeeman Christian Ziegler said. “You had a progressive PAC funded by dark money...and then you have the conservatives.”

But Ziegler, who is married to school board member Bridget Ziegler, urged his constituents to vote for Mast in the primary, characterizing the District 2 seat as the “deciding seat” on the board.

“With two conservatives and two union-backed board members, this race will decide which direction the Sarasota County School Board will head,” Ziegler’s email said.

Regarding the Ziegler email, Sarasota County Democratic Party Chairwoman Christine Jennings said she was surprised by Ziegler’s endorsement of Mast. 

“It’s very rare to see that done,” Jennings said.

Mast was not alone in her criticism of the Democratic Party.Republican candidate for District 1 Sarasota County Commission seat Mike Moran said the party’s involvement in the race was an insult to the process. 

“The Democratic Party stepped into a nonpartisan race,” Moran said. “I think it’s egregious and a slap in the face to the process.”

However, Jennings says the party’s endorsement was not agenda-driven.

“Us Democrats believe she has served well, and we want to see that continue,” Jennings said before Tuesday’s primary.

The political dynamics of the race were further complicated by the district’s superintendent search. Teresa Mast expressed dissatisfaction with the board’s current timeline for identifying Superintendent Lori White’s replacement as White prepares to retire in April. As it stands, the current board member will name the finalist Oct. 18, a month before the new board that Mast sought to become part of would be sworn in. Mast contended the timing was an intentional attempt to exclude potential incoming conservative board members from voting.

But Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe previously told the Sarasota Observer the current timeline was established in April due to board members’ concerns about the possibility of losing out on a potential candidate at a time when the St. Johns and Polk county school districts were also searching for superintendents.

After Tuesday’s election, Zucker said she feels the board is in a stable place to make the decision.

“Thankfully the future of the school board is stable,” Zucker said. “I think it sends a really good message to the new superintendent...the community is behind the board and that the board is heading in the right direction.”

However, concerns remain regarding the probability of political influences in technically politically neutral school board races in the future.

School board member Shirley Brown said that issues like school vouchers attract larger political donors, and, in consequence, create more political tension between candidates.

“Where there is money to be made, people are going to start coming to the table now,” Brown said.

She believes the school board’s active role in affecting policies that have larger monetary consequences such as whether to include for-profit charter schools in the district, invites more political entities to step into the ring.

“They see how really inexpensive it is to buy a school board member instead of a legislator,” Brown said.

For now, she’s pleased with the results of Tuesday’s election. However, as she nears re-election in 2018, she believes this race was indicative of increasingly political races to come.

“It did look like Teresa Mast had a much more organized camp than the candidate I faced last time,” Brown said. “Of course I’d be concerned.”

As for Mast, she said she’s going to enjoy some time with her family, but she implied she isn’t done with politics.

“Beware,” she said. “Look out. I’m not done.”

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