Host: Bridget Ziegler, the controversial figurehead of the conservative makeover of the Sarasota School Board, is out as chair. WSLR reporter Dania Hefley will tell us who succeeded her, and she also has the nuts and bolts of a new collective contract for teachers.
Bridget Ziegler, former chair.
New chair: Karen Rose.
Dania Hefley: In a unanimous decision, the Sarasota County School Board elected Karen Rose as the new chairwoman and approved a fresh contract with the teacher’s union during their Tuesday evening meeting.
Tim Enos, elected to the board last year, was chosen as the vice chair. Both Rose and Enos are set to fulfill their roles until November 2024. Prior to the appointments of Rose and Enos, there was a notable push to pick Tom Edwards, a self-identified moderate as vice chair. Paulina Testerman, parent and activist for the local Support Our Schools group, and Elizabeth Bornstein, parent of a middle schooler in the district, made the pitch.
Paulina Testerman: I am encouraging this board to show unity and show that you are not going to drag politics into this arena. Don’t just say it, prove it. This board has repeatedly, ad nauseam, stated that you want to remove politics from the dais. Prove it today. Elect Tom Edwards as vice chair. Restore our trust.
DH: Edwards received no nominations from fellow board members. He voted in favor of both Rose and Enos during the nomination process. At the end of public comment, two high school students spoke about their disappointment on their decision for chair. Here are August Ray and Zander Moricz.
August Ray: My name is August Ray, and I’m a senior at Sarasota High School. As chair, your job is to represent all students, not just the ones you deem fit. The only candidate I trusted to do that was Tom Edwards. I am disappointed by the decisions made today. It is with this disappointment that I would like to make one final statement addressed to the board. On behalf of myself and many of my peers, we feel you have failed in choosing a qualified school board chair and vice chair.
Zander Moricz: I just want to note that if today’s decision was made by Sarasota County students and teachers, Tom Edwards would be our school board chair, and that’s an important thing to note. Also, Karen Rose, starting off your chairmanship with censorship is like a little on the nose.
DH: Morris referred to the book policy discussed during a workshop prior to the meeting. In that session, members pondered a book policy that evaluates library and media center materials, to comply with controversial new Florida laws and regulations. During the meeting’s public comment, several citizens spoke about their disapproval. The proposed policy underscores considerations such as reader interest, content accuracy, author reputation, representation of different viewpoints, and the exclusion of objections based solely on sexual content.
Carol Lerner highlighted the ambiguity of the proposed policies, expressing concerns about potential censorship.
Carol Lerner: Here is one example of this ambiguity from the proposed policies on media materials. And I understand that there was an effort to moderate as much as possible what the state legislated. But in Section 3D2, it excludes books and materials, quote, depicting or describing sexual conduct. What does that mean? Are the sexual tensions depicted in Jane Austen’s Emma sexual? Is that describing sexual conduct? Does the allegation of rape in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird knock it off the list, despite this book being on every list of indispensable books for high school students to read? Another indispensable book, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is that off the list?
DH: During public testimony, one of the speakers, Robin Williams, a member of the Support Our Schools group, had her microphone cut off by the new chairwoman for “personalization”. We spoke with Lisa Schurr, co-founder of Support Our Schools.
Lisa Schurr: I’m not a constitutional lawyer. I am a tax lawyer. But, you know, it seems very clear to me that the provisions of the … board policy are overly broad and unconstitutionally vague. And I personally believe that what Karen did last night was a violation of Robin Williams’ First Amendment free speech rights. Particularly, if you look at this in the context of what has happened in the past at the school board, where people were permitted to stand up and disparage certain gay school board members by calling them evil and worse, and the board didn’t seem to have any problem whatsoever with that. Now, all of a sudden calling out one of the board members is a personal attack. She was being called out, if you will, with respect to her the job that she’s doing as a school board member. If we’re not allowed to make comments about how our school board is performing, that’s just blatantly wrong, as far as I’m concerned.
DH: In addition to leadership changes, the board approved a significant contract with the teachers’ union, covering more than 5,000 employees in the Sarasota school system. It includes raises across the board and an immediate 2% one-time supplement slated to be distributed to teachers and classified staff before the upcoming winter break. Instructors deemed “highly effective.” are slated to receive a 4.25% raise, while all other instructors will see a 3.5% increase. Classified non-instructional employees are set to receive a 4.5% raise on top of the 2% one-time supplement. These pay raises are retroactive for the current school year, supplementing a 0.5% pay increase that all employees received at the beginning of this academic year.
Karen Rose praised the agreement as a “record-breaking” package and highlighted the board’s respect for their staff.
Karen Rose: I recognize the work that our staff has done to come to this agreement. I couldn’t be more excited. It’s phenomenal. This board, unanimously, this board sitting up here on this dais, is for the second year in a row, last year it did offer, which was passed, a record-breaking package raise in benefits historically to our very well-respected teachers and staff.
DH: In a next-day interview with WSLR, Rex Ingerick, president of SCTA — the Sarasota County teachers’ union — did not share Rose’s excitement.
Rex Ingerick: The number that they’re talking about being so large included the additional cost of our benefit packages for health, dental, vision — particularly the medical, through Florida Blue — that increased 19% for our district through inflation and our employees’ usage of claims. And then the amount of money that our district has to pay for our Florida retirement system per employee also increased. So a lot of that $37 million increase that was reported last night has a lot to do with those multimillion dollar increase in cost.
DH: The approval of this contract hinges on the ratification by union members scheduled for Dec. 8.
Ingerick also touched on how teachers were affected by the book policy.
RI: Well, it’s been a great stressor, because the law is somewhat ambiguous and, you know, parents or any citizen — anyone — can make a complaint about a particular book, and that has to go through a review process. And quite frankly, our teachers have spent hours having to go through their own classroom libraries, because everything that’s in their classroom is considered to be part of the school curriculum. So it has to be posted online. So there has been just a lot of time, some people would say it’s not time well spent, but other people’s opinions think that it needed to be done. So, the law has required us to do that, and there’s been a lot of time. And a lot of teachers are very stressed. Some teachers just took all their books out because they didn’t want to be held accountable for a potential third-degree felony, which is in the state statute for if they had something in their reading materials that someone could determine, and we don’t even know who that someone would be, would then interpret whatever was in a book to be inappropriate, and then a teacher would be charged. It’s that loosey-goosey and that ill-defined that has caused a lot of stress on our staff.
Reporting for WSLR News, this has been Dania Hefley.
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