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Sarasota School Board delays vote on hiring a consultant with ties to Hillsdale College

Screenshot of a man in a jacket speaking at a dais. A computer monitor is in front of him.
YouTube/Sarasota County Schools
Sarasota County School Board member Tom Edwards addresses the board during a workshop Tuesday.

Opponents of the proposed contracts say Vermilion Education has no track record and were brought forward without any competitive bidding process.

Sarasota County School Board members put off a vote on hiring a controversial consultant following heated comments during a workshop Tuesday.

The meeting came after about 100 people rallied outside against the proposed contract.

The board will wait until its next meeting April 18 to consider hiring the consulting firm Vermilion Education, which has ties to the conservative Christian Hillsdale College in Michigan.

The delay came during a workshop, when Tom Edwards — the sole Democrat on the board who was recently verbally attacked by multiple speakers at two different board meetings for being gay — rebutted arguments that he was out of line for insisting the public be made aware of the proposed contracts and how much they might cost.

"I reject the accusations and I reject this board's need to put this on a vote, when it hadn't been properly disclosed," Edwards said. "I'm just frustrated for me personally, and I'm frustrated for our community."

Edwards filed for re-election the day after walking out of the last board meeting where he was verbally attacked.

Board member Karen Rose made a reference to that when she assailed Edward's position on Vermilion and said he was out of line.

"I reject you perpetuating your opinion and your perceptions, which are very much in line with your campaign, in creating the rhetoric and the divisiveness," Rose said. "And generating fear and generating division is coming from you."

A draft contract for consultant services shows Vermilion would be allowed to sit in on interviews of teachers, review proposed curriculum and district policies, and “assist with board communication to the public,” for a fee of $4,820 dollars a month. The contract would run on an ongoing basis until terminated.

But a second draft contract lists costs as "TBD," or to be determined. That deal, which involves a district improvement study, would give Vermilion access to a vast range of school policies, assignments, lesson plans and book lists, as well as collective bargaining agreements and the district’s strategic plan.

The contact lists a four-month duration of April 10 - July 10 “or within 60 days of receiving the final materials… whichever is later.”

Speakers during the public comment at the board's regular meeting that followed the workshop echoed concerns over the undisclosed costs, Vermilion's ties to Hillsdale, the fact that the consulting deal wasn't opened to bidding from other firms, and that Ziegler is listed as the district's representative and not the superintendent.

WUSF reporter Kerry Sheridan contributed information to this story.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.