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The school board blew it

Sarasota school board members and Superintendent Aspen showed how not to operate as a competent board and poised leader.

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From start to finish, it was a disaster.

If you attended or watched as an observer all five hours of Tuesday night’s special Sarasota County School Board meeting, by the time the board reached its climax (e.g. figuring out the meaning on what it was voting), your conclusion likely went something like this: Those people don’t know how to be an effective board or how to be board members. 

If this is what to expect from the new board, the school district, teachers, students, parents and taxpayers are headed for trouble. There is no way you could walk away from that fiasco feeling confident that success is in the future.  

Oh, where to begin?

At the beginning. 

A preview of what was to come occurred at the start of the meeting. Board member Tom Edwards made one of the two most pertinent comments of the night from a board member (he made the second one as well; more on that later). His first actually was a question:

What was the purpose of the meeting? 

Was it to discuss the termination of the superintendent’s contract, as board member Karen Rose moved at the Nov. 22 meeting? Or was it the motion the board members apparently voted on: “to discuss the superintendent’s contract”?

Two quite different things, to be sure.

Board Chair Bridget Ziegler was not precisely clear herself. After a bit of fumbling, Ziegler and the board settled on discussing the superintendent’s contract.

Next: Ziegler opened the meeting by asking for board comments, whereupon Edwards reminded her the agenda called for opening the floor to public comments. 

Ziegler acknowledged she was a little rusty sitting as chair again. But all of this was not a good omen. It was going to be a long night.

It was. And excruciatingly bad.

If board members were like professional sports team coaches, they would watch the “game film” and, we would hope, learn a lot from their performances. 

Here are some of our assessments:

  • The board members badly need a coach, an expert to school them on the role of a board; the role of board members; and how to conduct an effective meeting.

On the latter, as chair, Ziegler sets the tone. She needed to exhibit confidence and command of the  meeting. She should have shown she was ready to articulate specifically why the board was meeting — and gone so far as to say what she hoped the outcome would be.

It is standard practice in business meetings to establish an “up-front contract.” Before a meeting begins, you establish with the participants the “why,” the purpose, and what you as the leader hope to accomplish by the end of the meeting.

That contract gives everyone the guardrails and road map to follow.

Initially, Ziegler appropriately articulated the seriousness of the  meeting and gave the audience the standard admonition to behave. But she failed to express what she hoped the outcome would be. 

While Ziegler told us over the weekend she felt unsure how the meeting would go and of its outcome, she also told us in that interview her hope was that the board and Asplen could agree to continue working together.

She made no mention of the latter, raising the question: Was that her genuine hope?

  • Role of a board and role of board members: One conclusion you likely would make after listening to Superintendent Asplen’s outburst (more on that later) is some board members involve themselves too much in district operations.

That is verboten. The only time that is acceptable is if the CEO asks for the board’s involvement.

Let the CEO do his/her job. The board’s role is to watch the money; watch the direction of the business; and watch the CEO’s performance, which includes agreeing on goals, objectives and benchmarks to measure the CEO. Another role for a board member: Hand out praise to employees (with the CEO’s permission in advance).

In his diatribe of exasperation with the board, Asplen explicitly scolded board members for the politics that permeate what he deals with. “I spend more time on nonsense and can’t get my job done,” he said. “We’re always doing this nonsense all the time. If as a community you want to move forward, you have to quit this nonsense.” 

  • There was no discussion among board members to address this most basic question: 

What would be best for the district, its students and employees — especially in light of the turmoil the district has experienced the past four years? 

Audience members repeatedly raised the issue of past turmoil; Edwards, Ziegler and Tim Enos spoke about it. But none of the board members asked his/her fellow board members: What would be best: To continue to try to work with Asplen, or start over with the disruption that comes from Asplen leaving and trying to hire a new superintendent?

Board members failed miserably on that point. Instead, they focused on their personal-professional differences with Asplen.

  • Was this apparent move to get rid of Asplen orchestrated? Was it a fait accompli? Did board members violate the Sunshine Laws? 

None of the four board members who voted to discuss Asplen’s contract answered these repeated accusations from the audience. 

This, too, was a major failure. The fact they did not address it, in effect, confirms in all those people’s minds that this entire affair was orchestrated after the Aug. 23 elections and before Tuesday’s meeting. 

As one Sarasota business owner told us Tuesday night: “They are liars.” He offered no evidence. But he is convinced.

Not addressing that elephant created irreparable damage to the credibility of the board.

  • Why? Author Simon Sinek wrote a famous book, “Start with Why?” And that key question was never specifically answered.

Indeed, everyone — in the audience, in Greater Sarasota — wanted board member Karen Rose to explain why she started this whole drama. Rose made the motion at the Nov. 22 meeting “to recommend the termination of the superintendent’s contract.” But she never explained publicly, and in detail, why.

At Tuesday’s meeting, she once again referred to her responses in her evaluation of Asplen. But even those responses leave everyone wondering.

In an interview Monday, Rose told us: “My sole goal was to initiate a process for how we are going to bring unity back to the district. I’ve had the opportunity to work for three decades in this district with unity. So the divisiveness has to be addressed … There has a been a strong, consistent voice for change in the district going back to COVID. … And I’ve tried for change on the dais and in one-on-ones. But I don’t see it.” 

Like Ziegler, Rose told us in our interview she was open to and hoping Tuesday’s meeting would result in the board and Asplen working out an arrangement to continue. 

Like Ziegler, she made no statement to that effect. She made no suggestions to end the divisiveness.

By the meeting’s end, Rose said her “adversarial relationship” was such that she could not work with Asplen. She called again for his termination.

  • None of the board members, except Edwards, uttered a word toward wanting to explore or find a way for Asplen and the board to work together. This only reinforced the public’s perception the four board members want him gone.

A common refrain of many boards to CEOs is this: “What can we do to help you succeed?” 

Robyn Marinelli said she told Asplen in another setting she wanted to help him succeed. But neither she nor any of the other board members posed this simple question: “What can we do to make this relationship successful and allow you to succeed at your job?”

  • Ask questions. This is a role for the board chair. Everyone on the board sat Tuesday night as “a judger” — bloviating his or her points of view. The board chair needed to play the role of “learner” and ask questions as a way of guiding the discussion to a purposeful end. For example:

To Rose: Can you help us understand what it would take for you and Dr. Asplen to work together? Or, what’s preventing you from being able to work with Dr. Asplen?

To Asplen: Can you share your expectations of board members? What can we do more of to help you succeed, and what can we do less of to help you succeed? Or, can you describe in your mind’s eye how the ideal board would work with you?

They all need to read: “Change Your Questions; Change Your Life,” by Maralee Adams.

  • The Asplen explosion eliminated all hope. Blame this on Ziegler, too. When she turned to Asplen after all of the board members made their judgment speeches, she effectively lifted the lid on a boiling pot ready to explode.

And explode Asplen did. She should have let it boil.  

There is only so much anyone can take. And Asplen reached that point. The board members’ comments clearly solidified his decision to leave his job. He prefaced his tirade of picking apart board members’ criticisms by saying: “I feel I’m probably going to be fired after I say this. But I can’t hold back.”

And he didn’t. 

Unfortunately, Asplen’s pent-up frustration and anger was so great, he violated a cardinal rule of being a CEO: No matter what, “stay in your adult.” 

He lowered his stature when he lost his cool.

But it was understandable given the circumstances.   

  • Edwards’ second cogent comment came at the end of the meeting, after Asplen’s unbridled riff. Emotions were high; the air tense. Edwards rationally suggested the board and Asplen not make any decisions at that moment and take “time for all board members to let cooler heads prevail.”

This was the equivalent of advising not to hit the send key on a volatile email that would have grave consequences.

In that instant, Ziegler could have played rational peacemaker-leader. Instead, she said, “I don’t know how we build a relationship to function together. I will defer to my fellow colleagues.”

She blew it.

  • Irony of ironies: Speaker after speaker called for “getting the politics out of the school board.” Most of those were Democrats, many of whom had responded to notices from the Sarasota County Democratic Party to speak at the meeting in support of Asplen. 
  • Transparency: Based on the many people who were saddened and outraged that the new board moved so precipitously to oust Asplen, it was overly evident that board members have not been transparent, as they promised in their campaigns. Everyone went home Tuesday night still not knowing how and why specifically this tragedy occurred. Another failure.
  • Irreparably harmed? This whole drama — yet to be completed — is a shame, travesty and big black mark on Sarasota County. While Asplen is not a saint, as many speakers noted, overall Asplen has done an admirable job in extraordinary circumstances. He is good at what he does. Under his watch, there is no operational or quality crisis that needs immediate triage. 

What’s more, it remains an illogical mystery why the board — with two new members who have never sat on this school board — could not find a way to continue working with Asplen so board members could learn for themselves whether he is or is not suited for the job.

Of this we are sure: The four Republican school board members who will vote Dec. 2 to part officially with Superintendent Asplen will have much to do hereafter to prove they will not diminish or destroy what has been for more than three decades one of the best school districts in Florida and one of this community’s best assets.



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.