Questions surround Sarasota School Board move to fire superintendent

The Sarasota County School School Board, from left, Tom Edwards, Karen Rose, Tim Enos, Robyn Marinelli, Superintendent Brennan Asplen and Bridget Ziegler at the district’s reorganization meeting Tuesday at Venice High. Within an hour of two new board members being sworn in, vice chair Karen Rose moved to schedule a special meeting next week to consider firing the superintendent.
The Sarasota County School School Board, from left, Tom Edwards, Karen Rose, Tim Enos, Robyn Marinelli, Superintendent Brennan Asplen and Bridget Ziegler at the district’s reorganization meeting Tuesday at Venice High. Within an hour of two new board members being sworn in, vice chair Karen Rose moved to schedule a special meeting next week to consider firing the superintendent.

Minutes after Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Brennan Asplen handed the gavel to the newly named School Board Chair Bridget Ziegler this week, the board voted 4-1 without explanation to schedule a special meeting next week to discuss firing him.

The vote set the meeting for Dec. 2, but after the meeting, it was later changed to Nov. 29 at 5 p.m. because of scheduling conflicts with board members and the superintendent, according to a district official. School Board policy allows the board chair to schedule special meetings at their discretion with at least 48-hour notice, so it appears Ziegler rescheduled the meeting.

She couldn't immediately be reached for comment.

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The speed of Karen Rose's motion for a special meeting and the quick assent by a majority of the board about the superintendent's contract has raised questions about how the decision was arrived at and whether any communication took place outside of Florida's open government laws.

According to the state's Government-in-the-Sunshine law, members of an elected board cannot discuss matters which could come before the board for action outside of a setting accessible to the public, such as during a board meeting. The law also applies to candidates as soon as their unofficial election results are posted.

The first time that new board members Tim Enos and Robyn Marinelli would have been able to legally discuss the termination of Asplen's contract would have been last Tuesday, after they were sworn in. Ziegler and Rose, as sitting board members, would also have been precluded from discussing issues or using third parties to communicate.

Nevertheless, Rose's motion to schedule the meeting was met with no discussion.

Rose declined to comment immediately following the meeting, and has not responded to text messages and phone calls.

Tom Edwards, who cast the no vote against scheduling the meeting, said he doesn't want to accuse any fellow board member of breaking the law. But he also said the motion "felt orchestrated."

Edwards said he expected different legal counsel to be present Tuesday, but just hours before he received a call from Patrick Duggan, who currently sits as legal counsel for the board. He said Duggan told him he consulted with three board members and that he would be representing the board instead. Edwards said this was odd because Enos and Marinelli had not been sworn in yet, so the only three board members were Ziegler, Rose and himself and it was the first he had heard of it.

Edwards also questioned the involvement of an anonymously run Facebook page, the Sarasota County School District Transparency Project, which has about 2,500 followers and posts in support of Ziegler, Enos, Marinelli and Rose. The page has repeatedly called on the School Board to fire Asplen, pinning 2021 mask mandates and restrictions of parental rights on the superintendent.

Edwards said the page has access to information that "only certain people would know" and that some board members often act in line with what is posted on the page.

"How do we know that the person who is the administrator (of the Facebook page) isn't a school board member, or isn't a school board member's spouse?" Edwards said. "Tons of times what the board is doing, just like asking for the termination of the superintendent, appears first on that page."

The Herald-Tribune has requested text messages, emails and any other electronic correspondence between board members regarding the superintendent dating back to Aug. 23, the night of the primary election when Marinelli, Enos and Ziegler won election. The district confirmed receipt of the records request and was in the process of retrieving records as of Friday.

If the board decides to fire Asplen, his contract gives the district several routes to do so. One is "for cause", which would allow the district to fire Asplen without severance. If the board fires the superintendent "without cause," Asplen is entitled to 20 weeks of his base salary, which is $227,000 per year, plus benefits as severance, or about $90,000 before benefits.

It was unclear which path the School Board intended to go as of Friday.

Local officials from the teachers union and Democratic Party have sent emails to try to rally support for Asplen. In an email news release Friday, JoAnne DeVries, chair of the Sarasota County Democratic Party, wrote that the district would be hard-pressed to find a superintendent as good as Asplen if the board fires him.

“This is the first attempt of the new board to create chaos in our public schools,” she wrote. “What well-credentialed educator will want to take the job of superintendent in our schools after a fiasco like this?"

Barry Dubin, the executive director of the Sarasota Classified Teachers Association, wrote a letter to all union teachers following the board's action last Tuesday. He said in the email it was "obvious that move was pre-planned", and asked for people to come to the meeting to speak in support of the superintendent.

"I think all of us in the district were hoping for a period of calm and reconciliation," Dubin wrote. "The last thing we need now is a new superintendent search and one hired for political rather than educational reasons."

Follow Herald-Tribune Education Reporter Steven Walker on Twitter at @swalker_7. He can be reached at sbwalker@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Sarasota Superintendent Brennan Asplen faces termination vote