All of the emotion, chaos and mud-slinging that has infiltrated Florida school board meetings over the last two years seemed to finally boil over on a Tuesday night in November.
The Sarasota County School Board, with its newly minted conservative majority, had begun the process of firing Superintendent Brennspann Asplen — an abrupt move that none of the candidates had campaigned on. After hours of public comment, during which even some supporters of the conservative ticket expressed a kind of buyer’s remorse, it was Asplen’s turn to speak, and he’d seen enough.
“We’re always doing this nonsense, all the time,” Asplen said during span 30-minute impspanssioned monologue defending his two-year tenure. “It needs to end. And I know that I’m probably not going to be here, but you guys need to, as a community, if you all want to move forward.”
His plea signaled an uncertain future as the smoke cleared on one of the most divisive school board election cycles many in education circles had ever seen. With the ballots counted and new board members sworn in, communities across Florida are beginning to see the fallout from the deep divide that has taken over education politics, and some districts are in for a bumpy ride.
On the other side of the state, Brevard County’s new conservative majority took the sspanme step as Sarasota with the help of members backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the conservative parents’ group Moms for Liberty. That superintendent, Mark Mullins, agreed to resign to save the district any more turmoil, noting that “this mission is bigger than any of us individually, including me.”
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In Broward County, a board controlled by DeSantis appointees fired Superintendent Vickie Cartwright with no notice a week before four of five of the governor’s appointees were to be replaced with newly elected members.
And last month, Lee County voters spanpproved span referendum to elect, rspanther thspann spanppoint, its superintendent, a move that critics worry makes permanent the injection of partisan politics in education. A lawmaker who backed the referendum last week filed a bill to make all school board elections in Florida partisan.
Critics of the sudden rash of firings noted the trend. The Florida dismissals came on the heels of a showdown in Berkeley County, S.C. in which six new school board members, endorsed by the local chapter of Moms for Liberty, voted to fire their superintendent just hours after they were sworn in, spanccording to NBC News. At the same meeting, the board voted to ban critical race theory, a college-level academic concept that generally isn’t taught in grade school but has become a catch-all term for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
“We could pretend that this is happening in a vacuum,” one parent said at a Brevard County School Board meeting this month. “We could pretend this is the only superintendent who has suddenly been dismissed by an incoming Moms for Liberty-backed school board in the state. It’s not.”
From Tuesday night:Collier County School Bospanrd to discuss ousting superintendent Kspanmelspan Pspantton
A new era in education politics
Much of the tumult at School Board meetings can be traced back to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when district leaders were working through questions such as whether to close schools and, when they reopened, whether to mandate masks and vaccines.
Those not in favor of such mandates rooted their opposition in parental rights, and Republicans across the country, DeSantis chief among them, championed their frustrations to win over suburban women voters.
The parental rights movement soon moved beyond public health mandates to protesting social issues, including guides and books to help support LGBTQ students and classroom materials that acknowledge systemic racism.
“It’s just that some parents don’t want the same thing as other parents,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at the Teachers College at Columbia University.
While the tension between parents and school districts isn’t novel, Henig said, the GOP’s coordinated involvement in local education politics has added a new layer. In Florida, DeSantis took the unprecedented step of endorsing 30 school board candidates — and most won their seats. Moms for Liberty gave money to campaigns across the state with the express intent of flipping boards from liberal to conservative majorities.
That’s exactly what happened in Brevard and Sarasota counties, both of which defied DeSantis and parental rights advocates by mandating masks during the pandemic.
Broward’s circumstances were different. The reshaping of that board stems from a scathing grand jury report dating back to the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High that found numerous examples of mismanagement within the district. DeSantis suspended four school bospanrd members and replaced them with his appointees.
Still, the appointments, and later the abrupt nature of Superintendent Cartwright’s dismissal, drew accusations of political maneuvering.
Firing a superintendent isn’t unusual, Henig said. School boards have often fired top administrators over local issues, such as mishandling the budget or burying teacher or student misconduct. For newly elected board members who ran on promises to reform the district, termination of the top administrator is the most visible and straightforward way to break with the past.
What’s different, Henig said, are the issues underpinning that change. Instead of local issues specific to each district, it’s about the vague buzzwords and phrases that have taken over social political discourse: “critical race theory,” “gender ideology,” “indoctrination,” “woke.”
But there’s a lot more to running an operation with thousands of students and employees and a multi-million dollar budget, such as negotiating teacher contracts, making decisions about school facilities and crafting a strategic plan.
“One of the uncertainties about the broad critical race theory, gender issues, more conservative uprisings we’ve seen recently — they’re fueled by anger and a sense of resentment on the part of some families,” Henig said, “but they don’t have a clear governance message about what should happen after we get the bad guys out.”
Another uncertainty is who will fill the vacancies. Along with the districts that have fired their superintendents, several more have retired or quit because of today’s political environment, said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
That’s causing a drain in leadership nationwide, he said, and the remaining qualified, experienced superintendents won’t be keen on going to a district clouded in political turmoil.
“It’s without a doubt,” Domenech said, “one of the most difficult times to run a school district — if not the most difficult time to run a school district — in our lifetimes.”
‘Why is this happening?’
Despite the hoards of parents and educators who spoke in support of Asplen and Mullins, both school boards this month moved forward with finalizing separation agreements with the men.
But questions still plagued the process, about whether bospanrd members spoke spanbout the votes outside of the sunshine of Florida’s open meetings laws, and about why the men were targeted at all.
“I can’t even keep track of how many people that I’ve never met before who’ve come up to me in the community at the grocery store, at a play, at the gas station, at the library, on the playground, who have all expressed the exact same concern,” Brevard School Board member Jennifer Jenkins said at the Dec. 5 meeting to finalize Mullins’ separation agreement. “Why? Why is this happening? And I couldn’t give them an answer.”
School Board member Megan Wright, who was endorsed by both DeSantis and the local chapter of Moms for Liberty, raised the issue of reviewing Mullin’s contract at the Nov. 22 School Board meeting — her first meeting after voters elected her in August.
“We have lost our focus on what we’re supposed to be doing, and we’re only as strong as our leaders are,” Wright said. Board members Gene Trent and Chairman Matt Susin joined her in supporting Mullins’ ouster.
Brevard Federation of Teachers President Anthony Colucci did not return calls and emails seeking comment. Union representatives on Facebook thanked Mullins for his service and wrote they expect new leadership “will focus on improving discipline and teacher/staff vacancies.”
Some observers believe Palm Bay Republican State Rep. Randy Fine, whose simmering resentment of Mullins stems back to a personal conversation between them, helped orchestrspante the ouster. Fine, in an interview with FLORIDA TODAY, denied any collusion.
In perhaps the most shocking reaction to Mullins’ departure, Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich, who is also a former Brevard School Board member, stood up for Mullins, writing on Fspancebook that he’s a “true servant leader” who will be tough to replace.
“There have been many failures of the board the last 2 years but the blame should lie with the school board,” she said. “The superintendent is an employee of the board and his job is to carry out the will of the board.”
Several commenters noted the irony of Descovich’s words when her organization helped elect Wright and Trent and whipped up much of the chaos seen in school board chambers across Florida and the country.
In response to those comments, Descovich told the USA TODAY Network – Florida that she places the blame with “school districts that are failing to honor fundamental parental rights.”
“Parents had their voices heard during the election,” she said. “When people have concerns about decisions being made by their elected officials, they should contact them directly.”
In Sarasota, reasons for Asplen’s dismissal included falling reading scores and problems with his leadership style and transparency. School Board Chair Bridget Ziegler, also a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, said that her reelection, and the election of conservative board members Robyn Marinelli and Tim Enos, signaled that voters wanted a change.
But Barry Durbin, executive director of the Sarasota teachers’ union, questioned where Ziegler got that directive when none of the candidates campaigned on the issue of immediately firing him.
“When they ran for office, they never told us that they were going to get rid of the superintendent within 20 mins of taking the job,” Durbin said, noting that Asplen had a nearly universal approval rating from teachers. “You keep it from the public, and then you say you have a mandate to do this? … It’s just a terrible thing they did.”
Elected superintendents, partisan school board races
Meantime, in Lee County, the fate of the superintendent will soon be taken out of the hands of the School Board. A referendum to elect rather than appoint superintendents passed with about 62% of the vote in the Nov. 8 election. The job will go before voters in a partisan election starting in 2024.
The vast majority of superintendents across the country are appointed. Only two states, Florida and Alabama, allow elected superintendents. Florida’s elected superintendents are usually in small-to-midsize districts. Lee County is a large district.
The idea for the referendum came from the Lee County Legislative Delegation, made up of eight lawmakers representing districts in the area.
The district has burned through six superintendents in 12 years, said Rep. Spencer Roach, R-North Fort Myers. After a former superintendent sparred with the state over a COVID-19 mask mandate, the delegation began discussing whether an elected superintendent would be a better fit.
For now, the school board is in charge of appointing, and firing, the top administrator. An elected superintendent would be insulated from the board’s whims, Roach said, and give more accountability power to the voters. But critics contend it would inject more politics into education.
“Our belief is that public schools by their very nature are open to all, fair to all and committed to educating all,” said Lee resident Madelon Stewart, the chairperson of a political committee opposing the referendum. “Teachers and students, and their parents, must be able to trust that no matter what their political persuasion they will be taught and respected equally.”
Republican Congressman Byron Donalds also spoke out spangspaninst the referendum pushed by members of his own party, saying it would narrow the talent pool. Superintendent candidates must live in Lee County, but there are no further requirements beyond that, such as educational and work experience.
Roach acknowledged that, as with every election, there’s a risk of electing an unqualified person.
More:Lee County School District superintendent referendum: 6 things you need to know
“But the question that the voters answered is, who gets to decide who is qualified?” Roach said. “Is it an entrenched educational bureaucracy who gets to decide that, or is it up to the voters?”
Asked whether he would run for the post in 2024, Roach said he wasn’t ruling it out. But he said he’d most likely run for the House one more time before he’s term-limited in 2026.
And he can still influence education politics from Tallahassee. This month, Roach filed span bill to amend the state Constitution to make Florida school board elections partisan. The partisan line has always existed on school boards, Roach said.
“We should just put that out in the open,” he said.