At a packed meeting held Tuesday, an overwhelming majority of the roughly 60 public speakers expressed gratitude and support for Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Brennan Asplen. But it wasn't enough to deter School Board members from voting 4-1 to authorize the board chair and attorney to begin the process of removing Aslpen from his position.
Board member Karen Rose made the motion for authorization to negotiate a severance agreement—which includes resignation—with Asplen and his counsel. Board member Tom Edwards cast the lone dissenting vote. A timeline for Asplen to step down remains unclear, since Asplen’s attorney notified the board that it cannot impose a deadline for a resignation without entering into negotiations first.
The meeting lasted almost five hours, with an additional one-hour rally in support of Asplen that took place outside the building beforehand.
The question of Asplen's termination came less than an hour after two new School Board members, Robyn Marinelli and Tim Enos, were sworn in last week. Rose raised the issue and the board voted 4-1 without explanation to schedule this week's special meeting to weigh its options.
The rationale was left unexplained. Last year, Asplen received an overall positive rating during his first annual evaluation. Three of the five School Board members at the time—Edwards, Shirley Brown and Jane Goodwin—gave Asplen "highly effective" ratings. Rose gave him an "effective" rating, while now-board chair Bridget Ziegler gave him a "needs improvement" assessment. The same board voted to give him a raise in June.
Many have questioned if the move to terminate him is politically motivated, since the addition of the two new School Board members shifts the board's balance of power from a 3-2 liberal majority to a 4-1 conservative majority, with Edwards the sole left-leaning member.
Ziegler is a founding member of the conservative group Moms for Liberty, and both Marinelli and Rose have attended events with the Proud Boys, a far-right political group. Enos, Ziegler and Marinelli were all endorsed by Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during their campaigns.
During Asplen's speech at last night's meeting, he said that he is a conservative Republican and that he didn’t understand allegations to the contrary that have been made by members of the public. One speaker said Asplen had brought “wokeism” (a term often denoting sensitivity toward topics of gender and race) into the classroom. Another speaker, Melissa Bakondy, said that Asplen had "bowed down to LGBT groups" and "leaned left and divided our community."
Speakers who supported Asplen noted that since his hiring in 2020, he led the district through distance learning during the Covid-19 pandemic and contentious mask-wearing protocols, and was responsible for opening schools as shelters for displaced county residents and for repairing and reopening school sites damaged by Hurricane Ian, all while maintaining the school system's “A” rating. One speaker noted that Asplen had never experienced a "normal school year" since he started. Asplen came to Sarasota after serving in the St. Johns County school district, which has also consistently earned an "A" rating from the state.
Following last week's motion to discuss Asplen's termination and ahead of last night’s meeting, Asplen sent out a statement saying he was “plummeted into emotional turmoil by last Tuesday's motion” and that “after much reflection over the Thanksgiving holiday, it is with a heavy heart that I have accepted the fact that I will soon be separated by the School Board, as a collaborative relationship does not appear to be attainable." He added, “I will work respectfully and constructively with the board to achieve an acceptable resolution to my employment separation."
Last night's almost-five-hour meeting was rife with the theatrics that have repeatedly fetched national media attention. There were chants, applause, guffaws, personal callouts and interruptions that had to be quelled. The crowds audibly laughed when Rose said that “politics has no place on our board.” One speaker, Ed LaFrance, a single father, spoke in favor of firing Asplen and used most of his time at the dais to quote the Bible.
Many speakers felt that the question of terminating the superintendent was a coordinated effort that perhaps involved prior conversations between board members since the topic was raised so hastily—an allegation that board members had possibly violated Florida's open-government Sunshine Law. According to that 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.
Most speakers, including former and present county teachers and students, said they believed the decision would sow chaos and instability, and that it would degrade the public school system and open a pathway toward greater school privatization.
During the meeting, board members who supported Asplen's termination cited weak academic scores, transparency laws Asplen violated with an Equity Committee, nepotism (his wife also works for Sarasota County Schools, but details were not shared) and complaints about enforcing a temporary mask mandate during the pandemic.
Asplen responded to the items one by one, starting with, “I’ll probably be fired for this, but I have to say it.” He noted a lack of communication and chilly treatment from board members Rose and Enos following their election, and said they had never raised any concerns with him before. He also stressed the need to oust politics from the School Board’s agenda and focus on students instead.
“I spend more time on politics than education," he said. "Now we’re doing this? I could have been working on other things. All I'm doing is this nonsense. [...] I probably won’t be here, but I can’t continue to work like that. It's taking too much away from what we're trying to do for our kids.”
Following Asplen's speech, the crowd chanted, “Take the motion off.”
Edwards pointed out the importance of seeking a middle ground and giving Asplen a chance to address the concerns of the conservative board members, especially since two of them had not yet had the opportunity to work with him.
Wiley Crawford, a former educator, said, "Do you think you would have won if you had campaigned on firing the superintendent? Wouldn't it be wise to get your feet wet and interview teachers about him first? I give you an 'A' in dirty politics and an 'F' in integrity."
Nora Mitchell, a Booker High School student, said, “Do not lie and mock and claim that you care about your staff or students. Because if you vote for this, you do not.”
Angela Hollister, a North Port mother of two, said, “I can't comprehend this. I would have liked to see a measured approach, especially from the new two members. Your first action sends a message that unity is not your message. There is no cause to fire him.”
Another speaker, Sally Nista, said, “These children belong to their parents, not the district. Our children deserve a superintendent who I pray is a God-fearing person.”
Details of any possible severance package for Asplen have not been outlined, and next steps remain unclear. Kelsey Wheeler, a Sarasota County School spokesperson, wrote in an email that “at this time I do not have any details about what the potential superintendent search process would entail. The search process, contract, qualifications, etc. are all at the board’s discretion and the district is unable to speculate.”
“What worries me is: Who will you replace him with?" asked speaker Melanie Lipton. "Is it just going to be someone for political reasons?"