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Sarasota superintendent Asplen confirms a plan to 'separate' from the school district

A screenshot of superintendent Brennan Asplen in a white button down shirt speaking at a podium
Sarasota County Schools
Superintendent Brennan Asplen at a press conference Monday.

Brennan Asplen said in a letter it was with a "heavy heart" that he has accepted the end of his two years at the helm of the A-rated school district.

Brennan Asplen, the embattled superintendent of Sarasota County Schools, confirmed Monday he is working out a deal to separate from the school district, after the newly seated board called a special meeting for Tuesday at 5 p.m. to discuss terminating him.

In an email to USF on Monday night, Asplen said he will be at the meeting. According to the terms of his contract, if Asplen is fired without cause, he is due a severance package of at least $87,000.

In a statement, Asplen said he will "work respectfully and constructively with the board to achieve an acceptable resolution to my employment separation."

Asplen added it was with a heavy heart that he and his wife have accepted that "a collaborative relationship does not appear to be attainable" with the Sarasota school board.

He thanked community members for their support over the past two years and asked that the next superintendent be allowed to focus "on student achievement, not be dragged into the quagmire of the political arena."

On Nov. 22, the new school board was sworn in with a 4-1 conservative majority. One board member, Karen Rose, swiftly moved to hold a special meeting to discuss terminating Asplen, who was hired in August 2020 and led the district through much of the coronavirus pandemic.

That meeting was initially scheduled for Dec. 2, and then moved to Nov. 29.

Two board members retired this year and were replaced by Tim Enos and Robin Marinelli, who won their respective seats in an August election. Only one moderate remains on the board, Tom Edwards, who was not up for re-election this year.

"I find it odd that they feel that they have the ability to discuss the termination of a superintendent that they've yet to have had a conversation with. And so their discernment would be based on hearsay," said Edwards.

After Asplen is gone, "they can nominate who they want" to be the next superintendent, Edwards added. "And they apparently have the votes to make that happen."

Bridget Ziegler was re-elected to her seat, and was named chair last week. In an interview with WUSF, she declined to give specifics on the call for Asplen's dismissal, saying details would emerge at Tuesday's meeting.

"I don't think there's any partisan politics of this at any sense of the word," said Ziegler, who was a founding member of the advocacy group Moms for Liberty and was endorsed in her race by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

"If you move back to the election, there, the public overwhelmingly stated that they wanted to see a change in direction on the board. There is only one employee of the board and that certainly is the superintendent."

Ziegler also said she had "not been able to talk to him since that, despite my reaching out in my attempts to work through whatever and hear from his concerns based on that meeting," referring to the Nov. 22 first meeting of the new board.

Asplen took issue with that assertion, saying in an email to WUSF on Monday evening: "Ms. Ziegler called me once and I called back and left a message. Ms. Ziegler emailed me once and I responded."

Among those who have expressed support for Asplen are the Sarasota County Democratic Party, the Sarasota Classified/ Teachers Association, and the Herald Tribune Editorial Board.

A rally to protest Aspen's dismissal is planned for Tuesday at 4 p.m. at the school board headquarters.

"Such superintendent firings appear to be a coordinated effort with similar actions happening in other counties where DeSantis-backed candidates won in the August school board elections," said Robin Williams, president of the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Manasota.

"Many groups are unified in their opposition to this dirty political maneuver to oust a highly effective superintendent who managed the difficult task of navigating our district through the global pandemic while maintaining our A rating."

Asplen said he and his wife had moved from St. Johns County and planned to retire eventually in Sarasota, and were "plummeted into emotional turmoil" by last week's call for a meeting to axe him.

"If I have one request, please do better by your next Superintendent; allow that individual to freely be the instructional leader focused on student achievement, not dragged into the quagmire of the political arena," Asplen said in his letter.

The full text is below:

To our Sarasota County Schools employees, families, and community:

As has been reported in the media, I was contacted about working out a mutually agreeable separation from the School District shortly after last Tuesday's board meeting at which the motion to terminate my contract was made. Though my wife and I were highly disappointed and plummeted into emotional turmoil by last Tuesday's motion, 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. To that end, I seek not to be a distraction from the passionately steadfast commitment of our SCS teachers, administrators, employees, and the greater parent/student community. I want the Sarasota County School District to heal; I desire for our community to be at peace. There is a board meeting scheduled for tomorrow (Tuesday) evening at which the School Board will discuss its motion to terminate. I will work respectfully and constructively with the board to achieve an acceptable resolution to my employment separation. I ask that all attending the meeting do so with the same spirit in mind.

I have the utmost sincere confidence in the many talented and dedicated people who comprise our school district family. On the day I was sworn to your service, I entered Sarasota County Schools with the sole intention to work beyond the division and distrust that existed here and to restore a collaborative culture that would provide the best possible climate so that each student can reach his or her highest potential. My wife and I uprooted and invested our life here, both professionally and personally, with full intention to be part of this community into retirement. I wholeheartedly embraced SCS with high expectation and full commitment to its bright future, united to work as one for the success of all. I saw a district that was poised for growth and soaring achievement. I believe our Strategic Plan has focused us on an even stronger trajectory for the success of our students, despite the outside noise that often overshadows the vision. Division and hostility have never been part of my leadership fiber. This is why I have always held that our school district could collectively rise above the noise, and "do the work.” I still believe this. If I have one request, please do better by your next Superintendent; allow that individual to freely be the instructional leader focused on student achievement, not dragged into the quagmire of the political arena. With all due respect, please do not allow that be Sarasota’s legacy.

In closing, in the aftermath of last Tuesday's board meeting, I am completely humbled by the abundant outpouring of support from our past and present Sarasota County Schools teachers, administrators and support staff, our SCTA Union, our business and community leaders, our committed foundations, the Herald Tribune and the good citizens of Sarasota. I wish Sarasota County Schools only the brightest future and healing. Please know that I leave you with the sincerest assurance that I have labored to faithfully serve our students, community and SCS family of employees.

Dr. Brennan W Asplen, III

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.