Emotions ran high Tuesday night at a special meeting of the Sarasota County School Board, called last week to consider ending the employment of Superintendent Brennan Asplen.
Dozens of people arrived more than an hour early to the 5 p.m. meeting, many dressed in red to support Asplen, some carrying signs and demonstrating outside the Sarasota County Schools headquarters.
By the end of the nearly five-hour meeting, dozens of people had spoken in support of both sides of the matter, School Board members laid out their reasoning for moving ahead and Asplen himself delivered a passionate rebuke of those who sought his ouster.
Ultimately, the School Board voted 4-1 to continue negotiations that started last week designed to prompt Asplen to resign. It was the same 4-1 vote that on Nov. 23 triggered the Tuesday meeting.
Tom Edwards was the dissenting vote in both meetings.
“I’m not Christian, but this makes me think of the Last Supper,” Robin Williams, president of the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Manasota said. “In this case, there wasn’t one Judas, but four. While it was not Passover or Easter, it was right before Thanksgiving. What deception and what a betrayal not only of Dr. Asplen but of the public, our educators and students.”
The public speaks
About 50 people spoke largely in support of Asplen, though there were some critics of the superintendent. No seats were left empty in the chambers with a crowd of equal size outside watching the meeting.
Individuals were called up in batches in hopes of ensuring a quick, smooth transition from speaker to speaker. Each person was allotted three minutes to speak on the matter.
Students, parents, educators and members of the community spoke.
“Tonight, when you make this decision do not disrespect or dehumanize our students,” Booker High School senior Nora Mitchell said. “Do not claim that this decision is what is best for our students. Do not lie and say that you kept students in mind when you made this decision. Don’t mock us. Don’t lie and say that you care about your students, your staff or your teachers in this county.”
“Let’s be honest, this is your first stage in targeting every student who is not white enough, rich enough, straight enough or conservative enough,” Mitchell said. “The decisions that were made last week and what will be made tonight and onward is a power play…The district is not working as one for the success of all, it is working as one for the success of some.”
A consistent refrain from those supporting Asplen was a perceived political motivation by the new board majority, three of whom won contentious elections in August, defeating a trio of Democratic Party supported candidates. Although non-partisan, Ziegler, Enos and Marinelli drew backing of not only the local Republican Party but also that of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who campaigned for and supported like-minded school board candidates statewide.
Not every one spoke in support of Asplen, though.
“Clearly you have not been here for the last two years,” Alexis Spiegelman of Moms for Liberty said, “We need a fresh start.”
Board members explain
Once board members began discussing the superintendent's contract, they pointed to communication problems and tumult over the last two years.
“We don’t seem to be able to get away from controversy,” said School Board member Karen Rose, who made the Nov. 22 motion to meet on Asplen’s employment. “It has plagued this boardroom for multiple years, for too long. It takes away from our students; it takes away from our teachers, and it takes away from the business of academic achievement.”
Rose said she has continually raised concerns at the dais and personally to Asplen without change, though she rated him "effective" overall in his most recent performance evaluation.
Rose and Enos both expressed concerns with the lack of growth in reading, science and math achievement scores.
“Those results have been inadequate for many years,” she said, specifically citing reading scores. “I do not see what I have asked to see, and I do not see change.”
Edwards did not hold back when expressing his dismay.
“I’ve had a front row seat for what I perceive to be a copycat political agenda,” he said. “You ran on transparency. You ran on not dividing the community, and the first thing the first thing that you did was lie to the community by keeping to yourself that you were planning on firing the superintendent day one.”
Asplen himself delivered an empassioned statement, rebuking those who sought to remove him from office.
“I have a feeling I am going to be fired after tonight because I just can’t hold this back,” he said. “There are things that I just have to say.”
He too alluded to political motivations.
“It’s really confusing to me this whole thing,” he said. “...Whether I am here or not, which I probably won’t be now, but if I am not here and someone else comes in, you have to get the politics out of this school district.”
He said he leans conservative in his personal politics, but added such beliefs have no place in school administration.
"This school district could be number one, but we shoot ourselves in the foot every time," he said.
In a letter to school district employees and parents earlier this week, Asplen made reference to making peace with his departure.
"It is with a heavy heart that I have accepted the fact that I will soon be separated by the School Board, as a collaborative relationship does not appear to be attainable. To that end, I seek not to be a distraction from the passionately steadfast commitment of our SCS teachers, administrators, employees, and the greater parent/student community. I want the Sarasota County School District to heal; I desire for our community to be at peace.''
A follow-up meeting could take place Friday to finalize negotiated terms of Asplen’s resignation, if he chooses to. Otherwise, the School Board said it could add consideration of his termination at their next regularly scheduled meeting, which takes place on Dec. 13.