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Public comments remain hot topic for school board

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The Sarasota County School Board meeting on April 16 was quieter than usual, but the recent increase in public comments remained a topic of discussion during the preceding workshop.

In response to commenters, board member Tom Edwards brought forward a written resolution that the board hold discussions and a vote establishing how its motto of “Every Student, Every Day” should apply to the treatment of all students, including protected classes.

But other board members were not eager to adopt the resolution. 

Board member Bridget Ziegler criticized an initial draft as targeting an inquiry she had made in a March 19 work session on the ability to keep track of the language or immigration status of students. 

Ziegler said April 16 that her comments were not intended to support discrimination, but rather the gathering of data on English language learners for academic purposes.

Board member Robyn Marinelli said she found the resolution “a sheer political maneuver” directed at Ziegler, holding up her printout and tearing it in half. 

She also inquired about the cost for Edwards to have the documents drafted by attorneys. 

Board member Tim Enos said he felt the resolution was simply reaffirming laws the district was already required to follow, stating he was concerned it could lead to other such reaffirmations.

Edwards said he had not requested the second draft of the resolution, and that his goal was to alleviate a “parade” of public comments as well as verbal attacks on board members. He turned Marinelli's accusations of political theater back toward her.

Ziegler still called the drafting of the document a “reckless” use of taxpayer dollars. 

After Ziegler and Enos said they were concerned that attorneys from Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick serving the board may not necessarily represent the board’s legal counsel, Rose said it was time for the board to examine the number of attorneys and the reasons they were serving. 

Comment restrictions discussed

The board returned to topic of public comment restrictions.

Ziegler brought forward a modified proposal: that comments begin with residents, taxpayers, parents and guardians of current school students, current staff and students who wish to speak on the meeting agenda.

Those speakers would be followed by all other commenters, while comments on general matters would take place at the end of the meeting.

Ziegler said comment cards would require commenters to certify the information they are providing is accurate and that they agree to follow the rules of conduct, with Enos also emphasizing support for changes to the cards. 

Marinelli called for the board to discuss the parameters of public comment with legal counsel. 

"Either we, collectively, act like a board and have the common decency of what people say in here, or we just let people say what they want to say, because that kind of is what is happening now," she said. 

"We have spent a significant amount of time on this conversation," Edwards said, calling the solution "simple." 

He reiterated that the board should hold comments on board business before the meeting, with general comments at the end.

Rose said she believed the board had come to a consensus in favor of Ziegler’s proposal.


Board approves new positions 

The school board voted unanimously to approve several new staff positions.

It added two revised and expanded roles, ESE (Exceptional Student Education) Compliance Coordinator and ESE Instructional Facilitator, as well as the new position of ESE Program Facilitator, which Connor said would be “vital,” providing specialized support for students with disabilities.

It reinstated the position of State and Federal Grants Coordinator, a role Connor said had been vacant for almost three years, with a raised salary scale and qualifications. 

The role of program specialist — professional learning generalist would provide support to the department to move it towards its strategic goals, increasing retention and enhancing teachers’ practice, Connor said.

The roles of senior project manager for construction and assistant project manager for construction replaced an existing role the district had been unable to fill.

The role of executive director of elementary schools, Connor said, would relieve some of the responsibilities of Jennifer Mainelli, chief of elementary schools, who is currently overseeing all 26 elementary schools. 

In addition to new positions, the board also approved Packback, an AI-based program designed to provide writing instruction to students and grading assistance to teachers. 

Robinson approved for audit committee

The board voted 4-1 to approve Eric Robinson as Certified Public Accountant for the District 2 Audit Selection Committee, with Tom Edwards in dissent. 

Robinson, who already serves on the district's financial committee, is a former Republican Party of Sarasota County chairman and the husband of former Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson.

Edwards emphasized he did not intend to disparage Robinson, stating he seems to have done a "good job." He said although he had approved him for the financial committee, he thought it was an ethical conflict of interest for him to serve on both committees. 

He also referenced Robinson being Rose's campaign chair, and the fact that Christine Robinson is leading the district's upcoming referendum. 

“I want to be very clear, it has nothing to do with Mr. Robinson and his services to the community, it's just there's too much in my personal opinion," Edwards said, recommending the board reconsider the item or appoint someone else to the financial committee. 

Rose said in that case, the board could also take into account the financial contributions to campaigns of those serving on committees. 

“The framework that you are creating on this board is startling. Let’s focus in on academic achievement. Please," Rose said.

Attorney Patrick Duggan said he did not see an ethical or a legal prohibition for Robinson serving on both committees, stating the matter was up to the discretion of the board.

Ziegler also expressed support for Robinson, stating that this type of overlap was inevitable within the community. 

"I know prior to this, there were former campaign consultants that served on the Financial Advisory Committee, and there were certainly ties to campaign consultants with the referendum political committee, etcetera, with former board members," she said. 



Ian Swaby

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.

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