No Go

School Board Rejects Proposal for Consultant Review

School board members voted 3-2 to not move forward with a contract with Vermilion Education, a fledgling company with conservative political ties.

By Kim Doleatto April 19, 2023

Southside Elementary School

Image: Jenny Acheson

The Sarasota County School Board yesterday shot down a proposal to hire a firm with conservative political ties to review the county's lesson plans, texts, library books, assessments and policies. Board members Tom Edwards, Tim Enos and Robyn Marinelli voted against a proposed contract with the firm that had been put forward by board chair Bridget Ziegler.

The proposed deal with Vermilion Education—a fledgling Michigan company that was created late last year—would have lasted two months and cost taxpayers $28,000. More than four hours of public comment before the vote showed overwhelming support for scratching the deal. Speakers included Sarasota County students, local activists and others who read anonymous letters from local teachers who said they were too afraid of retaliation on the job to attend in person.

Objections to the contract highlighted the ties that Vermilion Education and its founder, Jordan Adams, have to conservative politics. Many cited what they called the company's lack of experience and its "melding church and state,” as one high school student put it, as reasons to deny the proposal.

Vermilion's website reads that "students should not be used by political parties or ideologies." Adams is a former employee of Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian school in Michigan. He worked with the college to expand its charter school network with the Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum and, according to reporting by ABC's Katie LaGrone, he was also consulted by the Florida Department of Education to review math textbooks for critical race theory content. He has also written for The Claremont Institute, a right-wing think tank.

Hillsdale College ​has hosted multiple Republican leaders from Florida, including newly installed New College of Florida interim president Richard Corcoran and Gov. Ron DeSantis. The DeSantis administartion has referenced Hillsdale as a model for the major changes it is seeking to make at New College.

According to Vermilion's website, Adams "brings years of experience teaching, training teachers, and writing curricula to bear on each service offered to school boards.” Incorporation paperwork for the company was filed last December, with Adams as the registered agent.

The contract would have invited Adams to conduct a three-day visit to three select Sarasota County schools—one elementary, one middle and one high school. Adams would then have written and published a report and improvement plan for the board.

Sarasota County School Board Chair Bridget Ziegler

Speakers opposed to the plan objected to what they called a lack of transparency about bringing Vermilion into the fold. On March 21, the Sarasota County School Board held a workshop during which Ziegler added a “Vermilion Education brief” item to the agenda without additional information. Prior to voting on the contract yesterday, there had been no public presentation from Vermilion and no call for other bidders for the contract.

The Vermilion discussion follows changes that began after a new conservative majority won seats on the five-member school board last August and shortly thereafter forced out superintendent Brennan Asplen.

“There’s no curriculum being produced here," Ziegler, who voted in favor of the contract, said Tuesday. "The timeline lines up nicely with a superintendent coming in, so if anything is found to be an improvement then the superintendent can evaluate that. I don't ever think it's appropriate to have anyone’s political agenda pushed into schools. I have my beliefs but I don't bring them to the dais."

Rose, who also voted in favor of the contract, said, “I'm very adamant that I do not want any religion or ideologies or any of the things people have brought up. We are obligated to make sure we're teaching the benchmarks and standards and this company isn't coming to put in an ideology. I’m looking for feedback to make sure we're focused on benchmarks and standards and that’s how we’ll get higher achievement.”

Before voting against the contract, Edwards said that "if we're going to be a competitive school district, then let's do a better job of how we select vendors."

Sarasota County’s School District has been rated as an "A" district by the state since 2004 and is ranked among the top five performing districts in Florida.

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