Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Brennan Asplen, anticipating his certain exit, criticized the newly formed School Board majority for its handling of his forced departure, blaming them for failing to give direction and bowing to outside political pressure.
"I have a feeling I'm going to be fired after tonight because I just can't hold this back," Asplen said before starting his monologue, addressing board members specifically.
His comments came after a nearly five-hour special meeting Tuesday dominated by people calling on the newly sworn-in Sarasota County School Board to keep Asplen as the top administrator. Nevertheless, the board voted to authorize negotiations for Asplen's resignation with severance, potentially within a matter of days.
The vote was 4-1, with Bridget Ziegler, Tim Enos, Robyn Marinelli and Karen Rose in favor and Tom Edwards dissenting. Negotiations between the School Board's counsel and the superintendent's attorney began last week when the board abruptly indicated it was moving to terminate Asplen's contract, but were halted prior to Tuesday's meeting.
The move toward separation between Asplen and the district followed the seating of Enos and Marinelli Nov. 22, giving the School Board a new conservative majority, and moments later led to a motion to consider his termination. Asplen has been the superintendent of the district since 2020 and earned consecutive "highly effective" ratings from the School Board.
In the Sunshine?: Questions surround Sarasota School Board move to fire superintendent
Prior to the meeting, the superintendent had sent a letter to district families and employees which he said he "accepted" that he and the district would soon be separated. His statement of the inevitable set the stage for the meeting in which most speakers urged the board to keep Asplen, followed by his impassioned 30-minute rebuttal in which he questioned the board's motives, methods and candor and defended his performance.
The superintendent described a hostile working environment with several board members and those elected in August. He said the board majority bowed down to politics in its decision-making.
In one-on-one meetings with Rose, Asplen said she didn't explain any issues she had with his performance in her evaluation and became cold toward him following the August election in which it became clear she and Ziegler would have the votes to drive district policy.
Rose criticized the superintendent for the district's reading scores during his tenure, and Asplen responded by pointing out that Rose has been with the district for almost 30 years, and that it was "ridiculous" to blame him since he had only been in the district for two years. A board member since 2020, Rose was previously a middle school principal and ESE teacher in the district dating back to 1989.
Asplen said he offered Enos the opportunity to talk to him after being elected in August, but he said Enos never called. The superintendent described having breakfast with Marinelli the day after the election and said he had a productive conversation.
He said he didn't understand how Ziegler evaluated him as having a good moral compass but said he needed improvement in the ethics category.
Generally reserved about his politics, Asplen revealed he was a conservative Republican who aligns with Ziegler, Enos, Marinelli and Rose, but said it didn't matter because he's an educator first. He pointed to Edwards, who he said couldn't be further from him politically, as someone who he's worked productively with for the betterment of the county's students.
"This school district could be number one, but we shoot ourselves in the foot every time" with the politics, Asplen said, referring to the Sarasota district's academic standing in the state. "I'm telling you because I came from a district that was number one for 12 years. If you don't want to listen to it, then don't listen to it."
Asplen came to Sarasota after serving as an assistant in the St. Johns County school district, the only other district in Florida to have received an "A" rating from the state every year since the grading system began.
Board member discussion
During the meeting, Edwards gave an additional 20-minute rebuke to the move to fire the superintendent. He tried to propose a middle ground to allow Asplen to have a shot to address the School Board's problems.
"You ran on transparency, you ran on not dividing the community. The first thing that you did was divide the community," Edwards said to his fellow board members, who he said are working to destroy public education.
Rose, who made the original motion to schedule a meeting to terminate Asplen, had been largely silent about the rationale behind her move. The meeting provided the first opportunity for her to publicly voice her complaints about the superintendent and why he should be removed.
She said Asplen's tenure had left much to be desired in terms of test scores and ESE achievement. The district has seen falling reading scores the past few years, but still maintained its "A" rating and a top-five ranking in the state.
Scores across many districts, though not all, dropped after the COVID pandemic began.
Marinelli, who had also been largely silent prior to Tuesday, talked about a breakfast she shared with the superintendent following her election. She said she asked Asplen what she could do to help him be successful, and he agreed to allow her to start forwarding him concerns from her constituents.
"I will work with any superintendent that is up here," Marinelli said.
But she later voted in favor of moving forward with the separation.
Ziegler, who chairs the School Board, commended the superintendent for his handling of COVID-19, and said the board put him in an "unwinnable situation." Having rated Asplen as "needs improvement" in her most recent evaluation of his performance, she pointed to past communication issues with the superintendent leading to tensions boiling over on the dais as a reason for the termination discussion.
Ziegler also denied that any Facebook page, such as the Sarasota County School District Transparency Project, dictates her decision on the board. Edwards has previously asserted that topics of posts on the page often make their way to board business.
Public commenters rally for Asplen
Of the more than 50 public commenters, the vast majority spoke in support of Asplen. Supporters expressed confusion and frustration to the School Board for what they said was a political decision made in haste and outside of Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine laws.
A number of speakers who voted for Ziegler, Enos and Marinelli expressed regret, saying the district would be hard-pressed to find a superintendent as good as Asplen and that the candidates would not have won their seats if they had campaigned on firing the superintendent.
Justin Willis, 35, disrupted the meeting by yelling from the crowd asking the School Board to withdraw the motion. Willis, a Republican, characterized his feelings as "buyer's remorse" for voting for the conservative slate of School Board candidates.
Ziegler, Enos and Marinelli campaigned on removing politics from the School Board, but Tuesday was much of the same, he said.
"This was nothing but politics and if you watched each and every one of them sit up there — it was a political game," he said.
Karen Kirsch, a conservative appointed by Ziegler to serve on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the superintendent search which resulted in the hiring of Asplen, said he was her first choice.
“Please understand that the handful of people who show up screaming and snarking at every board meeting and who make up the echo chamber in which you may spend a lot of time do not represent the vast majority of voters or taxpayers,” Kirsch said.
Kirsch criticized the board for moving to fire Asplen, minutes after assuming their positions, and implied that they discussed board business outside of the sunshine. She said that the move would be premature considering two newly elected school board members voted to remove him even though they had not worked one day with him.
“For folks who talk a lot about transparency, that looks a lot more like hypocrisy,” Kirsch said. “You are knowingly fomenting division and chaos after vowing to restore professionalism and order.”
Melissa Pérez-Carrillo contributed to this report.
Follow Herald-Tribune Education Reporter Steven Walker on Twitter at @swalker_7. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Sarasota School Board authorizes resignation negotiations with Superintendent Asplen