SARASOTA COUNTY (WFLA) — Brennan Asplen joined Sarasota County Schools as superintendent in 2020. Now, with a few years remaining on his contract, his job is on the line.
Emotions ran high during a nearly five-hour Sarasota School Board meeting Tuesday night.
Ultimately, the school board members did not vote to terminate Asplen’s contract. Instead, they are giving him the opportunity to resign and negotiate a severance agreement.
There was a strong showing of teachers, parents and students who spoke during public comment in favor of keeping Superintendent Asplen on the job.
Many of them accused the board of wanting to get rid of the superintendent for political reasons, not based on his performance.
“I’m not Christian but this makes me think of the Last Supper,” one supporter said. “Except instead of one Judas, there were four and while it’s not Passover or Easter, it was right before Thanksgiving. How deplorable.”
When it came time for Dr. Asplen to speak, he expressed frustration with the board moving to terminate him right before the Thanksgiving holiday.
During his passionate speech, he defended his record during Hurricane Ian, the COVID-19 pandemic and the implementation of the state’s new parental rights in education law.
“We got to get the politics out of the school system and I’m telling you right now whether I’m here or not I’ve said this before, which I probably won’t be now, but if I’m not here and someone else comes in, you have to get the politics out of this school district,” Asplen said.
School board chair Bridget Ziegler said she after Asplen’s emotional display, she doesn’t believe the relationship between him and the school board can be repaired.
“I honestly was very hopeful going in today,” Ziegler said. “Unfortunately and I understand there’s a lot of stress, lot of frustration but the unfortunate display makes it very hard for any board to move forward and that’s the professionalism and being able to work together.”
During a board meeting last week when two new board members were sworn in, school board member Karen Rose made a motion to hold a special meeting to discuss terminating the superintendent. The motion, according to the local union, came as a surprise to educators across the county.
“I would summarize the reaction by tremendous surprise and frustration and a lot of people were upset,” said Sarasota Classified Teachers Association president Rex Ingerick. “People are constantly emailing me and asking ‘where did this come from?’, ‘what has Dr. Asplen done?’ They are just kind of befuddled as to why this action is taking place,” he added.
Ingerick said the board, which is supposed to be non-partisan, is putting politics over education.
“They are supposed to be there to just look at what is best for education for all kids, and we are just looking at political agendas. The focus is not on what our education for our students is. They are picking and choosing different topics that Dr. Asplen was not responsible for. Our prior school board made those decisions,” said Ingerick.
He pointed to issues such as parental rights and masking in schools. The teachers union president feels a shake-up in district leadership will impact both morale and trust.
“It is a trust issue. Who is next? I mean, they are going to come in and they have already decided to get rid of a highly popular superintendent who really is not the cause of all this political upheaval, but they are pinning it on him,” the union leader said.
Going into Tuesday’s special meeting, School Board Chair Bridget Ziegler said she is interested in hearing from all stakeholders.
“Dr. Asplen has done tremendous things. He has come in under unprecedented moments and I have continuously given him praise for that. I also think there are very serious issues that deserve to be addressed because they impact families and children and that is what we are here to do,” Ziegler said. “At the end of the day, we move into tonight as a very transparent and candid conversation. There are a lot of unknowns, but my job is to make sure we maintain focus on what matters,” she continued.
In a statement released Monday, Asplen said he and his wife were “highly disappointed and plummeted into emotional turmoil” by the motion made last week.
”After much reflection over the Thanksgiving holiday, it is with a heavy heart that I have accepted the fact that I will soon be separated by the School Board, as a collaborative relationship does not appear to be attainable. To that end, I seek not to be a distraction from the passionately steadfast commitment of our SCS teachers, administrators, employees, and the greater parent/student community,” Asplen said in the statement.
He went on to write, “I have one request, please do better by your next Superintendent; allow that individual to freely be the instructional leader focused on student achievement, not dragged into the quagmire of the political arena. With all due respect, please do not allow that to be Sarasota’s legacy.”