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Opinion
Longboat Key Wednesday, Apr. 11, 2018 3 months ago

To rebuild board trust

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Sarasota School Board member Eric Robinson and Superintendent Todd Bowden unveiled their broiling distrust. The board’s effectiveness now hinges on its chair.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

Always take the high road.

Praise in public, criticize in private.

Do the right thing, the right way, for the right reasons.

Take responsibility for your actions.

Do your job.

These pearls of wisdom come to mind after watching the April 3 Sarasota County School Board meeting — specifically, the 45-minute verbal conflagration and meltdown among the five school board members and Superintendent Todd Bowden.

What … is … going … on? We thought the Manatee County School Board cornered the market on dysfunction. 

But Sarasota’s board certainly appeared as dysfunctional a week ago — except that none of the board members tried to run down any fellow board members in the school district’s parking lot. 

It was ugly and disturbing — most of all, the sparring between board member Eric Robinson and Bowden. If much of the public had witnessed what occurred, it seriously would have rocked taxpayers’ confidence in the board. 

The dysfunction and animus clearly stems from a mutual dislike and distrust between Robinson and Bowden. Indeed, Robinson ignited an  eight-minute verbal firefight when he accused Bowden, in roundabout words, of doing a poor job of representing the district among other local government leaders. 

Bowden blew. Although he maintained his composure well enough not to lose control or shout, he lashed back at Robinson in a way you rarely see a subordinate respond to one of his bosses.

“I believe that you agitate,” Bowden said, looking directly at Robinson. “I believe that you drive wedges between us and these other entities. The fact we face a $2.5 million shortfall doesn’t fall at my feet, and I won’t accept that.

“The idea we have poor relationships is a narrative you have fueled,” Bowden barked at Robinson. “I will not be attacked by you. I’ve gotten between you and members of my staff on multiple occasions at which you said, ‘I will crush you in public.’ And yes, that is a quote. It is.’

When Bowden finished, the other four board members took their turns, expressing their displeasure and dismay at the board strife, at Bowden and at each other. Only board member Jane Goodwin refrained from making specific references to her fellow board members or to Bowden.

But longtime board member Caroline Zucker brought the fusillade to a close when she said: “I say we all shut our mouths and learn how to work with the superintendent. And if we can’t, then sit it out or get off the board.” Clearly a slap at Robinson.

And now, with this tension-filled episode a dark cloud about to burst into a downpour, the chair of the school board, young Bridget Ziegler, faces a difficult challenge and a crucial test of her leadership: how to put the past behind the board and create an atmosphere of trust, respect and collaboration. The future effectiveness of the board hinges on her navigating and leading successfully through this cauldron.

To that end, were we to be in her shoes, our opening remarks at the next board meeting April 17 might go like this:

My Fellow Board Members and Citizens of Sarasota County:

Let me start with a public apology to all of you. I am sorry I have not done a better job of creating a professional atmosphere and one that gives our constituents a feeling of confidence and trust — that they can trust us to perform with integrity, competence and decorum.

As of today, this minute, this meeting, that will change. I will do all in my power to chair this board in a way that will make you, the citizens and taxpayers of Sarasota County, proud of your school board and that will give you the confidence and trust in us that you deserve.

I cannot do this alone. I need the help of my colleagues on the board and of Superintendent Bowden.

Our success will start with three things:

1) That we all recognize we not only have a fiduciary duty, we have a duty to preserve, protect and enhance the integrity of this institution — the school board. The teachers, staff and parents of this district have worked hard over many decades to create one of the best school districts in Florida. 

We cannot damage or destroy that. We, all of us on this dais, must live up to that reputation and exceed the standards of our predecessors. We must set the example befitting of a top-tier school system.

Protect the integrity. Act with integrity. Nothing less.

2) Trust. For any organization to succeed, its members must have mutual respect and trust in one another. 

We have not shown those virtues. 

To earn each other’s trust, we must treat each other at all times with respect. We must be honest with each other — in a respectful way. We must follow the same code we expect of our constituents when they address the board. As I read before public comment at every meeting:

“Please note respect and civility for divergent viewpoints will be shown at every board meeting. Whether you agree or disagree with the speaker, you should listen politely and respectfully without making any sounds of approval or disapproval.”

To that end, we must remember the first rule of a leader: Praise in public, criticize in private.

Yes, we will have differences. But adults and professionals can agree to disagree. I will not tolerate personal attacks. As a wise mentor instructed me: “Stay in your adult.” We must always act as adults.

To Mr. Robinson and Superintendent Bowden, I address the following to you and myself:

It is quite evident we have had our differences and need to build a new relationship. I pledge to meet privately with Superintendent Bowden to discuss how best he and I can work together — and communicate honestly and respectfully. We all know the root of so many problems often is a result of poor communication.

I would hope Mr. Robinson and Superintendent Bowden do the same.

3) Finally, I want to commend all of my colleagues on this board, as well as Superintendent Bowden. I know you all are committed to making this school district the best it can be. But given the past, I nevertheless want to ask my fellow board members, Superintendent Bowden and myself this important question: What are we willing to commit to going forward? 

Are we willing to commit to doing everything each of us can to preserve the integrity of this board, to act with integrity and to carry out our duty with respect and trust — for one another and for the good of the district?

I am. I will do my best.

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