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Sarasota's superintendent is negotiating his exit as a conservative majority mulls firing

Superintendent Brennan Asplen wears a white shirt and speaks at a meeting of the Sarasota School Board in October
Sarasota County Schools
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Screenshot
Superintendent Brennan Asplen led the district through the first return to school, in August 2020, after the pandemic began

The new members of the 4-1 conservative majority have not said publicly why they moved to discuss Brennan Asplen's termination at their first meeting Nov 22.

Sarasota County schools superintendent Brennan Asplen is negotiating what is likely to be a six-figure deal to step down, just days after a new conservative board majority proposed firing him, one school board member said Sunday.

The sole moderate on the five-member Sarasota board, Tom Edwards, said the move to fire Asplen happened fast, and appears politically motivated.

"I am a bystander in a train wreck for our students and our superintendent," said Edwards.

"No one has said that this is in the best interest of our students. No one."

Edwards was not up for re-election this year, and questioned whether proper transparency procedures were followed by the new board.

"I guess where I'm most concerned is that here in Florida we have what is known as the Sunshine Law and I'm not sure that the procedure for negotiation was followed in accordance with our statute," said Edwards.

Many questions remain about why Asplen would be fired. He was hired in August 2020, led the district through much of the coronavirus pandemic, and kept its overall "A" rating.

Asplen's own performance was deemed effective or highly effective by four members of the previous school board.

A tweet on 11-22-22 from Moms For Liberty says new school boards are being sworn in and they aren't wasting time getting rid of superintendents
A tweet from Moms for Liberty on 11/22/22

Only one board member ranked him as "needing improvement." That was Bridget Ziegler, a founding member of the conservative group Moms for Liberty who was selected last week as the new school board chair.

Ziegler did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Moms for Liberty groups have been calling for superintendents to be fired across Florida, if they supported mask mandates during the pandemic, or if they are perceived to oppose parental rights in education.

None of the Sarasota board members last week provided specific reasons to consider Asplen's termination.

Asplen was superintendent when the Sarasota School Board voted in late August 2021 to impose a district-wide mask mandate for Sarasota's 46,000 students, as cases of coronavirus spiked to a 16% positivity rate in Sarasota County amid the surge of the delta variant. That mask policy was formally repealed in early October, once cases subsided.

In October 2021, Asplen supported a repeal of the mask policy because he said it had "fulfilled its purpose," and he did not want to risk deepening legal battles with the state.

Asplen speaks at a podium with six members of his staff behind him, to discuss school reopening after Hurricane Ian
Kerry Sheridan
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Asplen oversaw the response to Hurricane Ian, which heavily damaged schools in the southern part of Sarasota County

Asplen's contract says if he is let go without cause, he is due a minimum of $87,000 in severance pay. Edwards says the exit package Asplen is negotiating is likely to rise to around twice that amount.

"I'm hearing if the rumor mill is correct, that there are several litigations that are being discussed, including class-action suits by parents and constituents," said Edwards.

"If they dismiss the superintendent, the school board will be sued. So now we're open to a litigation line item that is not in the budget. So there are those financial concerns that I will be raising in our discussion. Why do this? Did we have to accept this liability?"

A special school board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday evening at 5 to discuss his termination. Rallies supporting Asplen are scheduled ahead of the meeting. The board is expected to hear public comment before voting whether to fire him, or accept his resignation.

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