The Sarasota County School Board moved forward with discussions on redrawing the individual boundaries within the school district on Oct. 3, deciding to hold a vote on Oct. 17 on a proposal that would essentially align the district boundaries with those of the Sarasota County Commission.
The date of the vote was chosen in consideration of a requirement that the board vote on the matter at least 270 days prior to the general elections in November 2024. The discussions followed a vote of 4-1 by the board in August to hire a contractor at $39,000 to redraw the boundaries.
Although the proposal basically follows the County Commission district map, it does alter the boundary between districts 3 and 5 in south Sarasota County, which contractor Kurt Spitzer of Kurt Spitzer & Associates said will ensure a board member is able to remain within District 5. Tim Enos is the representative for District 5.
The board decided not to move forward with an alternate proposal based on expected population growth, which would have moved the Eastgate neighborhood in Venice from District 3 to District 5, moved Siesta Key from District 4 into District 2, and moved portions of north Sarasota from District 2 to District 4 and District 1 to District 4.
Spitzer said both proposals take into account the locations of current school board candidates in order to avoid disfavoring a candidate, something that would be forbidden by law.
During a previous meeting in August, members of the public had voiced concerns about candidates being potentially disqualified by a redistricting, although board members said at the time that this would not occur.
The proposal would impact voting for school board members by changing the areas they represent but would not impact students.
Some question the move
Board members generally favored the idea of redistricting.
But board member Tom Edwards said there was not a significant rationale for the idea, as the districts and precincts were redrawn through the Supervisor of Elections two years ago.
“I’m not suggesting that either of your proposed plans would not pass muster,” he said, addressing Spitzer. “Your whole theory and/or possibility of underpopulating, is based on theory, is based upon some projections of where developments are going to be and how fast they get built and how fast they move in. … We do it every 10 years because we do it on data, actual data.”
Edwards suggested the board table the issue and save money, but school board attorney Patrick Duggan said the board was already obligated to provide $36,000 of the $39,000 it had voted to spend.
“I personally am somewhat indifferent,” said School Board Chair Bridget Ziegler. “My biggest thing was making sure we’re in compliance and … ultimately allowing the community an opportunity to see the process because we’ve never done it quite this way.”
She asked whether the first plan would bring the numbering of the districts into alignment with that of the County Commission.
Duggan said switching the numbers would be a complicated process, and that he did not know whether it would be prohibited entirely or not. He said the relevant consideration was that elections for the districts are staggered, alternating between even-numbered and odd-numbered districts every two years.
Board member Tim Enos said he favored aligning the districts with those of the County Commission.
“When we look at the totality of that, I am in favor doing it towards the map of the County Commission for a variety of different reasons, but one of them is just for basic voter consistency and knowing who it is and that one board member deals with one county commissioner at a time instead of having to do multiple.”
Vice Chair Karen Rose said she hesitantly supported the move.
“I brought up the idea to look at the county commissioner lines. It was not done correctly in the past, and I did not make the motion to bring on the consultant, but I have been significantly targeted by a printout of a local political party,” she said. “But I will say that I do support getting in line with the County Commission, with hesitancy of the political intent coming from a group.”
Groups including the Democratic Public Education Caucus and Venice Area Democratic Club had been encouraging the public to attend the meeting in order to oppose the redistricting and support school board candidates they said would be impacted.
Board member Robyn Marinelli discussed the future growth of Lorraine Road to Knight’s Trail Road. She cited the development of a new school, hospital, fire academies, homes, apartments and more.
She noted that she did favor Siesta Key remaining within one district, although the County Commission map would split the key into two districts.
Board members also discussed the process by which the move towards redistricting came about.
Marinelli said decisions of board members were repeatedly construed as political, to which Edwards responded that the process appeared that way to him.
“It was brought up as, I’d like to think about this, and the next thing I know I’m sitting at a board meeting to hire a consultant, and there was no dialogue, there was no conversation, and the victimhood was, I didn’t bring it up,” he said.
“It was discussed,” Marinelli said. “We had the consultant, the public to hear. But when you listened to the last one, it basically was, here’s the map at the workshop, you could look at it, and bam, the vote that same day. … This to me, was transparent. How the chips fall on the 17th, they will fall.”
During member comments, Edwards called for tighter procedures for bringing forward items for discussion following ideas being raised during member comments.
Speaking during the public comment session of a board meeting following the workshop, Shannon Clements criticized the decision by the board to vote on a contractor in August without a workshop being held on the topic, and for a lack of data regarding population changes.
Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.