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'Politics and nonsense' plague the Sarasota school district, exiting superintendent Asplen says

Brennan Asplen wears a dark suit and gray tie at the school board meeting 11-29
Sarasota County Schools
Brennan Asplen was hired as superintendent of Sarasota schools in August 2020.

Superintendent Brennan Asplen will not be fired, but the board voted 4-1 for him to negotiate his resignation package, which according to his contract calls for at least $87,000 in severance.

The Sarasota County School Board voted 4-1 Tuesday night to negotiate a severance package with the district superintendent, seeking his resignation rather than firing him outright.

Brennan Asplen was hired in 2020, and earned high performance reviews as he led the district through the coronavirus pandemic and Hurricane Ian.

But after the newly elected conservative majority was sworn in Nov. 22, returning board member Karen Rose — who was not up for re-election this cycle — moved to consider his termination as their first order of business.

At the meeting Tuesday evening, she explained why:

"Overall, reading, science, and math achievement has not shown even minimal growth. That's my focus area, academic achievement," said Rose, who has worked for the school district for 27 years.

During public comment, more than 50 speakers urged the board to keep Asplen.

"Dr. Asplen, you have done a heroic job, leading during two extremely difficult years with a pandemic, hurricanes and storms of a different kind, partisan politics and extremism taking hold of Sarasota County Schools," said Elizabeth Bornstein, one of the speakers.

About a dozen people called for him to be fired over things like COVID mask policies, operating an equity committee in violation of Sunshine Law, and refusing to allow parents to walk their children to class.

"Dr. Asplen, when you formed the Equity Committee, and they met outside of the sunshine, you violated Sunshine Law. That is grounds for dismissal," said Michelle Posey.

"I can't even feel sorry for you because your severance pay will be twice the median income for Sarasota County families," she added.

Asplen's contract calls for a minimum of $87,000 in severance if he is terminated without cause.

Newly elected board member Tim Enos, former chief of the Sarasota County Schools Police Department, listed ways he thought Asplen lacked leadership, including the school district mask policy during COVID, discussions on removing unruly parents from school board meetings, sending wrong information to districts about enforcing parental rights laws, and nepotism because Asplen's wife works for the district.

"I think he's a great guy," said Enos. "It's about choices as you move forward."

At the end of the four-hour meeting, Asplen finally got a chance to talk.

"I have a feeling I'm gonna be fired after tonight, because I just can't hold this back," said Asplen.

He questioned Rose for blaming stalled academic achievement on him, when she has worked for the district nearly three decades.

"When you talk about these numbers and our our reading scores and our achievement gap, and you know, we throw COVID in there and everything else, and you said it many times you've worked here for 27 years. I just got here. I just got here," Asplen said.

"We have a great plan in place, and we're moving forward, and we're doing really good things. But you know, to sit there and just say that it's not happening the way you want it to happen. And it's because of me. That's kind of ridiculous, because you've been here for a long time doing it."

To Enos, Asplen expressed surprise.

"Tim, I thought you and I were good. I'm confused," Asplen said.

Asplen acknowledged that the achievement gap hasn't budged in the past two years, but pointed to COVID quarantines as a possible reason, keeping many kids out of school for extended periods.

He also questioned why Rose was opposed to a program called "Character Strong" that advocates positive behavior traits.

"And so I'm asking Miss Rose, because she's just very against Character Strong. And her answer is, 'Google it.' And I said, what? We vet these programs, our people are highly experienced educators that vet these programs, as you would know, because you've been there," Asplen said.

"I spend more time on politics and nonsense than anything else. I can't even spend time on a lot of the instructional (elements) because we're dealing with this kind of nonsense. I don't know why we're here. Because I thought I was doing fine," he added.

Asplen said he kept his own political opinions out of view, and was surprised that people sometimes mistook him for a liberal.

"Does anybody know what I am? No? I am a conservative Republican. I line up with these four folks right here," he said, pointing to the majority which voted for his resignation.

At the end of Tuesday's meeting, Rose made a motion for authorization to negotiate a severance package agreement that includes resignation, with Asplen, his counsel, school board counsel and the board chair, Bridget Ziegler.

Ziegler is one of the original founders of the advocacy group Moms for Liberty.

Tom Edwards was the only one to vote no, and said his vote was on behalf of the students.

"What we're doing here tonight, the chaos that this board brought needlessly, is to create chaos in public education, so that they can advance charter schools for profit," said Edwards.

It's not yet clear when exactly Asplen will step down, or who the board will name to replace him.

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