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Sarasota's school board chair cites 'trust and faith' concerns as superintendent's exit looms

Robin Marinelli in a red dress sits to left, Brennan Asplen wears a suit and tie and sips water in the center, as Bridget Ziegler sits to the right on the stage at Venice Performing Arts Center for the first meeting of the new board on 11-22-22.
Sarasota County Schools
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On Nov. 22, 2022, the new board voted 4-1 to hold a special meeting to discuss Brennan Asplen's termination, but gave no reasons for the move.

Bridget Ziegler was the only board member to give Brennan Asplen a performance review saying he needed improvement; the rest deemed him effective or highly effective.

The Sarasota School Board is holding a special meeting Tuesday at 5 p.m. to discuss the potential firing of Superintendent Brennan Asplen, despite high performance reviews. He's already negotiating an exit deal that could cost the district at least $87,000 in severance.

The new board chair, Bridget Ziegler, is part of the conservative 4-1 majority that was sworn in last week. One of the original founders of the advocacy group Moms for Liberty, Ziegler was endorsed for re-election by Gov. Ron DeSantis, even though school boards have long been seen as nonpartisan bodies.

Ziegler spoke with WUSF's Kerry Sheridan about the special meeting to discuss the potential termination of a superintendent who was rated highly effective by most members of the previous school board.

The big question is what's going on? Why fire Superintendent Asplen?

So you know, the question about firing, certainly a board member brought it forward as far as holding a special meeting. I do believe it warrants a discussion in the public tomorrow.

There are a lot of unknowns about what will be discussed. And we will hold it. I hold it very important that our public and also our board members have the opportunity to discuss where they stand and what that looks like moving forward.

Bridget Ziegler speaks at a school board meeting in May 2022, wearing a blue dress
Sarasota County Schools
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Bridget Ziegler was a member of the previous school board and is now chair of the board, which has a newly elected 4-1 conservative majority

So is this political?

I think it's completely operational. Again, I am here to hear from my colleagues about what it is and why there may be any element of distrust or lack of faith. And I think that a public meeting is allowing that opportunity. I don't think there's any partisan politics of this at any sense of the word. I do certainly believe that, you know, if you move back to the election, 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. I, as one board member, have been very transparent about my position on the superintendent. I maintain that as of today.

I will tell you one part that is somewhat frustrating is that I haven't 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, because I truly care about the direction of Sarasota County Schools. I want to ensure that there's stability, but I also think I understand the way a board works, period, and working with their CEO, there has to be trust and faith among one another. And I am concerned that may not exist, but I don't know what those details and reasons are.

So you haven't spoken to Brennan Asplen since the meeting on the 22nd.

I have not despite my attempts to reach out to him. [SEE EDITOR'S NOTE BELOW]

School superintendent Brennan Asplen and school board member Bridget Ziegler wear masks at the school board workshop
Sarasota County Schools
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Sarasota Schools Superintendent Brennan Asplen (left) and School Board Member Bridget Ziegler

Who's negotiating the exit for him then? Who's involved with that?

My understanding is that our general counsel has been in conversations with the superintendent's attorney, but no deal or anything has been finalized. I think there are preliminary conversations in good faith to to alleviate any additional turmoil or such as we move ahead.

Is there any evidence in your view that he did a poor job? That he needs — that he would be fired with cause for this? Or would this be a without-cause termination?

I will say that the fact that there are — it appears that based on the motion, that certainly there is a board member that has concerns and potentially more, but not knowing what those are is what tomorrow will afford us.

Superintendent Brennan Asplen speaks without a mask at a Sarasota school board meeting
Sarasota County Schools
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Sarasota superintendent Brennan Asplen

OK, so if he is let go without cause, we're looking at at least $87,000 and possibly double that. You ran as a fiscally conservative, fiscally responsible candidate. Is that a fiscally conservative responsible decision?

Well, I will tell you, unequivocally, I am a fiscal conservative, and I also am very good at evaluating risk and doing a cost-benefit analysis overall. There are a lot of nuances here that we need to look at. But without the knowledge of where everyone stands, and how we are able to work, move forward — in particular, the ability to speak with the superintendent and where he stands on what direction he wants to go — are really going to be the pivotal discussions and information that will allow us to understand at what cost.

Some of the (costs are) financial, some are indirect. But at the end of the day, our mission is to ensure that our children are receiving the highest quality academic education and that the learning and working environment is such that allows everyone to thrive. And there has to be confidence in one another and trust and good quality communication.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Asked for comment, Asplen said Monday evening that he had been in touch with Ziegler.
"Ms. Ziegler called me once and I called back and left a message. Ms. Ziegler emailed me once and I responded."

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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