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A consultant with Hillsdale College ties could land a contract with Sarasota schools

Jordan Adams appears on a Zoom screen from inside a home in Hillsdale, Michigan.
Sarasota County Schools
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Screenshot
Jordan Adams heads the new consultancy form, Vermilion.

The controversial vote on Tuesday would grant the consultant access to a range of district policies, practices and textbooks, and includes in-person visits to three schools.

The Sarasota School Board is set to vote Tuesday on a $28,000 consulting contract with a new and little-known company called Vermilion.

The consultant is Jordan Adams, a former employee of Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian school in Michigan.

The latest iteration of the draft contract,posted online, shows Adams would be asked to deliver a district improvement study after visiting a few classrooms and gaining access to a range of district documents, including lists of textbooks, library books, lesson plans, guidance counseling practices, collective bargaining agreements, and more.

“I'm not entirely confident that American education as a whole is necessarily moving in the right direction.”
Jordan Adams

“I'm not entirely confident that American education as a whole is necessarily moving in the right direction,” Adams told the board via Zoom at a workshop on April 4.

"To start just with the district improvement services side of things, you know there are a lot of folks out there, especially in the last couple of years, who have different opinions about what things are happening or are not happening in schools," Adams said.

The proposed contract has been narrowed down to one from the two put forth initially. It no longer includes a monthly fee for board consulting services from Vermilion.

Adams said in the Zoom call that his proposal "doesn't go into terribly great detail, it does not want to burden district staff and especially teachers, but Vermilion takes a high level look at district-originated policies and practices."

A screenshot of the items Vermilion would have access to, including parent access and transparency policies, district discipline procedures, and the district strategic plan.
The contract shows a list of the Vermilion could access, including parent access and transparency policies, district discipline procedures, and the district strategic plan.

Sarasota has been an "A" rated school district for years, ranking in the top five statewide.

But major changes began after a new conservative majority won election to the five-member school board in August.

The board forced out its highly rated superintendent, Brennan Asplen, in December 2022, and offered him a severance package of $170,000 plus moving expenses.

Then, despite hearing teachers and students praise a program called “Character Strong," the school board canceled it after school board chair Bridget Ziegler called it a “distraction” and said evidence was lacking that it would improve student behavior.

Ziegler, who was endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in her school board run, has also recently been appointed by DeSantis to the new Central Florida Tourism Oversight District that oversees Disney, as well as to the New College of Florida Presidential Search Committee.

“As a retired elementary school teacher with 35 years of experience, I'm appalled to learn that Sarasota County School Board is on the verge of hiring Vermilion Education LLC.”
Rolf Hanson

DeSantis has vowed to remake New College into a “Hillsdale College of the South,” and appointed six new trustees to the liberal arts school earlier this year, leading to the ouster of President Patricia Okker and the hiring of interim president Richard Corcoran at $699,000 per year, double Okker's salary.

Ziegler, one of the original co-founders of the parents' right advocacy group Moms for Liberty, brought forward Vermilion as a consultancy option for the Sarasota County School Board in late March, saying it would help to “have someone to help us with certain things when it comes to keeping us away from the fire."

Sarasota School Board chair speaks from the dias at a school board workshop in March
Sarasota County Schools
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Screenshot
Draft documents show the consultant would report to Sarasota School Board chair Bridget Ziegler, one of the original cofounders of Moms For Liberty

Ziegler did not respond to requests for comment about how she learned of Vermilion, or for a clearer explanation of the need to hire a consultant like Vermilion.

None of the four conservative board members responded to emailed questions from WUSF asking about the absence of track record for Vermilion, which appears to be only a few months old with a business address of a single-family home in Hillsdale, Michigan.

The sole moderate on the board, Tom Edwards, has voiced his opposition to the deal, saying “this feels like a very secret scheme.”

Public comment at the April 4 school board meetingwent on for hours, with most speakers saying they were against the Vermilion deal.

“As a retired elementary school teacher with 35 years of experience, I'm appalled to learn that Sarasota County School Board is on the verge of hiring Vermilion Education LLC,” said Rolf Hanson.

“So what is Vermilion — an offshoot of Hillsdale College — bringing to the table? Besides an extremely weak duplication of existing services?” asked Anne Sundberg.

"We want our children and grandchildren to have a broad spectrum of education and a broad view of topics. Not a narrow Christian nationalistic view,” said Jay Wolin.

On Tuesday, the board is also discussing cuts to pre-K programs, and a $150,000 contract with a separate firm to review the district's special education programs.

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