On Saturday, the day early voting for the Aug. 28 primary election began, candidates for the Sarasota County School Board participated in a forum that shared their views on a variety of topics, but focused largely on two things: school security, and the performance of Superintendent Todd Bowden.
The forum was hosted by University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee’s Institute for Public Policy and Leadership, in partnership with the Observer Media Group and Manatee Educational Television.
Nearly all candidates for the three races participated in what is one of their last chances to share their views with voters before the election. District 5 school board member Jane Goodwin did not attend.
In the question-and-answer format, moderated by Observer Publisher Emily Walsh, the candidates discussed school security, which they all said should be a district priority.
In the District 1 race between current board Chairwoman Bridget Ziegler and Nick Guy, Ziegler said she has been vocal against the board’s decision to set up an in-house police force, particularly because she wasn’t comfortable with the timeframe and the lack of a plan.
“As recent as last week, the financial impact was unknown, and that terrifies me,” Ziegler said. “I want to make sure the department knows they have the support to do it right … not to do it fast, to do it right.”
Guy said he was terrified his opponent was still “pooh-poohing” the idea of an internal police force. He said he feels comfortable with the internal police force because eight other districts have them, including Pinellas County. “This was not made up on the back of a napkin,” he said.
In the District 4 race between board member Shirley Brown and Karen Rose, Brown said the force has made good progress since the decision was made, including garnering the support of Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight, who pulled his funding for deputies in schools earlier this year.
“I think there were some bumps in the road and some tension at first, but we have overcome them,” Brown said.
Rose, who is the former executive director of Sarasota County Middle Schools, said she has concerns with the internal police force given that the Sheriff’s Office and local police departments’ protection of schools historically has been “flawless.”
“Our children deserve the best, and that’s going to be to continue a partnership with the Sheriff’s Office and police departments,” Rose said, adding that she’s concerned with the cost of the internal police force.
In the District 5 race, all three candidates present said they were not in favor of an internal police force. Pamela Gavette said her primary concern was transparency and accountability in its funding and formation. “We can spend more than a half-million dollars before the police force has even been hired,” she said. “It seems fiscally irresponsible to me that there’s no oversight or accountability of the superintendent.”
District 5 candidate Rick Linden said it was a “fundamentally incorrect decision” to create an internal school force, while candidate Justin Cody Willis said he was in favor of continuing relationships with the Sheriff’s Office and police departments, as well as focusing on the mental health of students.
Assessing superintendent's performance
In response to a question regarding Bowden’s performance as superintendent, Ziegler said she has been disappointment in his management, and she voted to hire him in an attempt to move forward and do what was in the best interest of the district.
Guy said he doesn’t believe he would have hired Bowden, but looking at Bowden’s record objectively, he has had success during his time as superintendent. “I’d like to have a conversation with him on his management style,” he said.
Brown also said, like Ziegler, she voted to hire Bowden to show solidarity of the board, but she felt like the district needed someone with more K-12 experience. She said she’s been disappointed in his failure to work with other groups, including the teachers’ union. “I think we can have win-wins, or at least a draw on some of these, because I don’t think it’s a good situation when we look at winners and they’re not the children.”
Rose said when she looks at the partnerships that have been broken, she agreed with the board’s recent evaluation of Bowden as “less than effective.”
In the District 5 race, candidates all stated dissatisfaction with Bowden’s performance. Linden said his spending priorities are not appropriate because they are in areas that do not directly benefit student learning or security. “I think he’s the wrong person for the job,” Linden said.
Willis said he would not have hired him to be superintendent. “I think he was doing a great job at SCTI, and that’s where he should have stayed,” he said.
Gavette said she was alarmed in Bowden’s comments that attributed the district’s success to his hiring of nearly 20 new administrators. “That’s just really alarming to me that it’s not more about our teachers and what’s happening in our classroom,” she said.