Last night's Sarasota County School Board meeting was similar to the one that took place two weeks before. Despite widespread support from the public to retain Superintendent Brennan Asplen, the board voted 4-1 to move forward with a separation agreement with Asplen. Tom Edwards cast the lone dissenting vote, with Bridget Ziegler, Karen Rose, Robyn Marinelli and Tim Enos all in favor.
Multiple speakers and Edwards pointed to a recent survey in which 97 percent of Sarasota County teachers said they supported Asplen's retention, and a previous evaluation by board members who found the superintendent to be "effective" in his role. Talk of firing Asplen came immediately on the heels of the swearing in of new board members Marinelli and Enos in November. Their election created a 4-1 conservative majority on the board.
Asplen's original contract was set to run through 2025. The move to accept his resignation also includes the resignation of his wife, Mari Ellen Asplen, who works for Sarasota County Schools as a supervisor. Assistant superintendent Chris Renouf will replace Asplen until the next School Board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 17, when members will discuss the search for a permanent replacement.
Public comment at last night's meeting lasted for two hours and was preceded by a one-hour rally in support of Asplen outside. Roughly 40 public speakers took the dais, with 11 speakers in favor of Asplen's termination.
As is now standard at School Board meetings, which have garnered national media coverage, there was applause, boos and guffaws.
Those who were in favor retaining the superintendent cited the costs associated with his termination that come as the school district suffers from staff shortages, and potential Sunshine Law violations when it appeared the board had already made a decision to terminate Asplen outside of public meetings.
Speakers also applauded Asplen for leading the school district through challenging years that have included the Covid-19 pandemic, Hurricane Ian (during which school buildings were used shelters) and politically charged discussions around school policies.
Those who wanted to see Asplen gone cited the presence of pornographic books in schools (the speakers didn't name specific titles), violations of Gov. Ron DeSantis' masking policies during the pandemic (the School Board was not charged with breaking any laws) and nepotism, with speakers referencing Asplen's wife's position with the school system.
"None of you has provided a cogent explanation for this," public speaker Karen Kirsch said, adding that people "feel duped and betrayed."
Public speaker Rhana Bazzini said, "A hidden agenda was exposed when the first order of business was to call a special meeting to discuss [Asplen's] termination."
Other speakers said Asplen, a self-professed Republican, is a darling of the local media, the teachers' union and Democrats, and alleged he had broken the Sunshine Law when he formed a school equity committee.
After the vote that decided the Asplen and his wife would be terminated, Edwards, who proposed hiring a mediator and giving Asplen and the board a chance to work together, said, "We tried. Let me say that this is not in the best interest of the students."
Zeigler said she had never intended to terminate Asplen but felt that following the election of the newly appointed board members, "there was a disconnect in our communication." She also pointed to Asplen's impassioned speech at the Nov. 29 meeting, during which Asplen responded to speakers' and board member concerns. "I wonder if he had any intention of working with this board," Ziegler said.
"On the 29th, I didn't plan on saying much," Asplen said. "But when you sit and listen to all the information coming from the four people who won't hesitate to terminate you, I had to respond."
Asplen also addressed the allegation of nepotism. "That's a false accusation," he said. "When I came on board, I reviewed [the hiring of my wife] with the School Board attorney to make sure we were in compliance."
Marinelli said she was going to vote to retain Asplen, but added, "I feel like the relationship is broken."
In Asplen's farewell statement, he pointed out that the School Board is mired in politics, and read a social media post from Christian Zeigler, the vice-chair of the Republican Party of Florida and the husband of School Board chair Bridget Zeigler. In the post, Christian Ziegler quoted a Florida Politics story declaring Bridget Ziegler a "winner" for being able to "soon claim the scalp of Sarasota County Superintendent Brennan Asplen."
"I speak for myself," Bridget Ziegler responded. "My husband can answer those questions separately. This is a perfect example of not being transparent or taking accountability."
Asplen also asked about the Moms for Liberty "playbook" referenced in the above social media post, but never got an answer.
As for a new, long-term replacement, Edwards said those he called about the position told him they didn't want to expose their families to such a politicized environment. He said community input would be necessary in choosing a new superintendent since "trust had been broken." Other board members agreed.
Asplen's severance pay is the equivalent of 20 weeks' pay at his regular rate, which amounts to just under $90,000. The separation agreement also includes up to $12,500 for legal expenses and another $12,500 for the cost of moving, should Asplen decide to move outside the county before Dec. 31, 2023.
Before leaving the building hand in hand with his wife, Asplen said, "I reiterate what I've consistently said as your leader: Block out the noise and the false narratives and continue working as one. My praise goes to our dedicated staff and mostly to our students. You are the future. You will do great things and soar. ... It has been an honor to serve as your superintendent."