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Opinion

For Sarasota school board

After four years of culture wars, the fallout from COVID and changing to a new superintendent, the school board needs stability and consistency.


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Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of the Observer’s recommendations for the Aug. 20 primary elections in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Whenever the subject of the Sarasota County School Board surfaces in conversation, Sarasotans’ eyes roll. They immediately think of the school board meetings over the past four years, and they can’t help but remark: “What a s--- show.”

It’s embarrassing. 

A public blemish that just can’t seem to go away. 

Time after time, the parade of activists from the left and right go to the podium to spew their three minutes of hostility, airing their pent-up frustrations, oblivious to the fact they’re adding nothing positive, only digging the hole of hate deeper.

Not helping are two school board members — Bridget Ziegler and Tom Edwards, who stoke the politics and division with their opposite-side activism.

They all trigger  that now-famous plea from the 1992 Los Angeles riot peacemaker, Rodney King: “I just want to say, you know, can we, can we all get along?”

All this board meeting rancor and the culture wars that have raged like El Ninos throughout America’s public school systems for the past four years — probably in Sarasota as intensely as anywhere — are ample illustrations of what we have contended all along about public education. Coercive, tax-funded, state-controlled, collectivist, supposed equal education for all inevitably ends up with what we have been witnessing in Sarasota: 

Disparate groups of agitators demanding greater shares of limited resources; school board members handcuffed by the rules sent down from Tallahassee and Washington; and school administrators and teachers barraged on all sides — mandates from above, indifferent or overbearing parents and students whose every need is different. It’s a recipe for mediocrity at best. At best.

Even in Sarasota’s highly regarded public schools, only 30% of third graders were reading at grade level not that long ago. Horrendous.

But there is good news. Scores actually are on a path of improvement. Third grade reading scores in the past year rose an eye-catching 7%, up 14% if you exclude charter schools. The highly acclaimed work of Superintendent Terry Connor, one year into his job, is fueling turnaround momentum. 

The challenge for voters, then, is to select candidates in the Aug. 20 primary and perhaps the November  general election who best can keep that going.

In the District 2 race, the winner will be elected. In District 3, if one of the candidates wins 50% or more of the vote, he wins. If not, the top two finishers will face each other in the November election.

The school board races are labeled nonpartisan, but the reality is they are decidedly partisan. The campaign contributors tell the story.

If you peruse the names of contributors to the four candidates running for school board (see box), they clearly break down as follows: 

  • District 2: Incumbent Karen Rose has Republican backing, and challenger Liz Barker has Democrat backing.
  • District 3: Incumbent Tom Edwards has Democrat backing, while challenger Gregory Wood has some Republican backing, and Thomas Babicz is struggling with few knowing his great story.

Despite the partisanship, party affiliation should not matter, because here is what the taxpayers need from the school board: stability, consistency, predictability and the purging of politics and chaos.


District 2

Karen Rose / Liz Barker

With Karen Rose and Robyn Marinelli, Sarasota taxpayers have two board members who have strong, deep-rooted knowledge of the schools, teachers, culture and what works and doesn’t. Combined, they have worked in the district 64 years.

Karen Rose
Photo by Ian Swaby

Rose, 72, has had classroom experience as an exceptional student educator; 12 years as a principal of Brookside and Sarasota middle schools; and her last post as executive director of the district’s middle schools for three years. She has a master’s in education with a focus on behavior disorders. And when Rose corners you, her focus is on student performance data.

Altogether, Rose is a trove of historical wisdom, always pushing for improved academic results.

She is one of the board members who became alarmed about the district’s academic direction and led for a change in leadership. 

Many district observers believe Rose and her colleagues made a colossal mistake when they dismissed Superintendent Brennan Asplen. But insiders have told us Asplen was not the total all-star as perceived and that the leadership of new Superintendent Terry Connor is shifting the trendline of declining and stagnant academic performance to an upward slope. Effective leaders bring out the best in people.

Even board member Tom Edwards, an ardent supporter of Asplen, acknowledges that Connor is doing an exceptional job.

Then why disrupt that momentum? 

It’s irrefutable that whenever any organization makes changes at the top — whether bringing in a new CEO or a new board member intent on effecting change — the result is organizational and personnel disruption. Momentum stops. Months, if not more, go by as everyone tries to adjust. Progress is halted or lost.

Rose’s opponent, first-time candidate and a three-year resident of Sarasota, Liz Barker, wants change. Like everyone else, she wants to rid the board of the political divisiveness.

Liz Barker
Courtesy image

Barker, 40, is a former school psychologist and mother of four children in Sarasota’s public schools. She would represent the beginning of a generational shift on the school board. She currently is president of the Lakeview Elementary School PTA. Kudos for her involvement.

Indeed, we’ll give credit to anyone willing to enter the arena of elected public service. That takes courage and a passion for wanting to make a difference or right a perceived wrong.

But when Barker talks of ending the politics, how would that happen? She has expressed at public appearances disagreement with the education policies of Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature. But the fact is, much of the political divisiveness infecting the board has occurred because of the policies adopted in Tallahassee. Local school boards are merely the implementers of the governor and Legislature’s mandates.

Unfortunately, in the case of the Sarasota School Board, as noted above, board members Ziegler and Edwards are political activists who fuel the political discord. Until they are gone (Ziegler’s term ends in 2026.), Barker isn’t likely to make much of a difference.

Altogether, Barker is young, unknown and untested. Rose has weathered and persevered one of the most difficult periods in board history in the past 30 years. With Superintendent Connor, the board and district are on a positive course. Turnarounds take time and need predictability and consistency. For this seat, stay the course.

We recommend: Karen Rose


District 3

Thomas Babicz / Tom Edwards / Gregory Wood

More often than not in politics, name recognition and incumbency carry a candidate to victory.

In that vein, incumbent School Board member Tom Edwards is hoping those two characteristics will carry him to a victory in the primary over his two largely unknown opponents, Thomas Babicz, a retired IT programmer and manager from Venice, and Gregory Wood, a Sarasota Realtor and former head coach of the Sarasota Scullers.

Tom Edwards
Photo by PETER ACKER

Edwards for sure has made a name for himself. Wow, he never holds back. Take your pick of board member comments at school board meetings. For instance, tune in to the end of the May 7 board meeting, where you’ll see an animated and red-faced Edwards — a frequent posture — unloading on his board nemesis, Ziegler, and her Title IX resolution. 

If say Ziegler zigs with a politically conservative soliloquy, Edwards is sure to zag with his own disparaging or questioning soliloquy representing the opposite side or different point of view.

You can say that is his role. Often the loser in 4-1 votes, Edwards can be viewed as the devil’s advocate, which, to an extent, can be healthy. Effective boards need directors with different perspectives and ideas — far healthier than having five nodding heads who agree on everything.   

What’s more, there is no questioning Edwards’ passion for the school district and his wanting to make it the best in the state. He would cite his advocacy for such programs as pre-K funding, a trades academy at Riverview High School or an AI film lab at Booker High. Edwards, 65, a retired entrepreneur, also brings valuable financial and business acumen to the board.

But while he often harps on the need to extricate the board from its four years of divisive politics, Edwards contributes to the charged atmosphere. Watch his six-minute speech at the end of the June 4 meeting. Edwards responds to what he called a “divisive hit job that did find its way into my inbox.”

One of the crucial moments in his speech was when he said: “I am not in favor of boys in girls’ restrooms. I am not in favor of boys in girls’ changing rooms.” And he added: “I think that hit job also was to harass and diminish our trans students. So, while I’m on that moment … from my seat on this dais, I wish you all a Happy Pride.”

On observing this, a viewer logically could ask: What did that have to do with advancing the education of Sarasota students? In these frequent moments, Edwards often comes across as an angry man at constant odds with his fellow board members. Strife hangs over the board at every meeting. 

Which raises the questions: Is he a help or a hindrance? Would it be better to have one of his opponents fill his slot? Who would be best to further the forward momentum of the district?

Thomas Babicz has a wonderful personal story (see ElectBabicz.com) — how he grew up in Gdansk, Poland, under Soviet communism; how he escaped to West Berlin and eventually made it to the U.S. with $32 in his pocket. 

Thomas Babicz

He writes that he “survived the first two weeks in America by eating one slice of pizza per day and drinking water from a sink.”

Babicz is a classic story of a penniless immigrant who achieved the American dream — becoming a successful corporate IT manager who, with his wife, raised three children.

He says he wants to give back to his adopted country. “He saw how communism in Poland started in the schools there, and he knows how to stop it from spreading and festering here,” says his campaign biography. “It starts with educating our next generation in the Truth.”

Babicz is a wise, calm, thoughtful, talented IT man, but also a political novice and unknown. He has raised $13,625 toward his campaign from 18 contributors, with $12,000 of that amount his own. Odds for victory: a miracle.

For Gregory Wood, the odds are similar. Father of three young children, Wood, 44, has lived in Sarasota five years. He wants to serve and has the demeanor suited to be a calming voice. He ran for the school board in 2022 but dropped out because of an illness in the family.

Greg Wood

Like Babicz, Wood has little name recognition and thin experience in Sarasota politics. As of this week, his campaign contributions totaled $14,795 from 62 contributors and $5,400 of that his own.

In his favor, Wood is a member of the Audit Committee for the Republican Party of Sarasota County. With Republicans outnumbering Democrats in Sarasota County 151,497 to 86,162, Wood could have a mathematical chance to reach a runoff in November. In 2020, Edwards won with 53,000 votes.

The outcome of this race hinges on voters’ view of Edwards as a contributor or a detractor. 

Edwards is a supporter of Superintendent Connor, a fiscal conservative and passionate about the district’s schools — attributes that can further forward momentum. But his political activism and tirades are exasperating and unproductive.

Put yourself in the shoes of a board member. Which would you rather have for stability moving forward — the novice father-businessman who likely would diffuse the politics or the aggressive devil’s advocate who challenges the establishment?  

We recommend: Gregory Wood

 

author

Matt Walsh

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

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