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Sarasota School Board fails to discuss low student numbers

Written by on Thursday, October 19, 2023

But it did vote for redistricting, a move many call a waste of money.

By Ramon Lopez

Original Air Date: Oct. 18, 2023

Host: A bombshell for Sarasota schools exploded last week, when the new superintendent announced a hiring freeze, in response to lower-than-expected student numbers – amid fast population growth in the county. The issue was NOT on the agenda at the school board meeting yesterday, but people in the audience sure were eager to talk about it. Another controversial item WAS on the agenda, however. WSLR’s Ramon Lopez has the story.

Ramon Lopez: The five-member Sarasota County School Board met Tuesday night with two key subjects on the minds of the school board members and concerned citizens attending the meeting.

Surprisingly, neither topic generated much rhetoric from those assembled at the two-and-half hour meeting.

Sarasota School Superintendent Terrence Connor’s standard formal presentation to lead off the meeting did not include word on a reported temporary hiring freeze. But it did cite shrinking enrollment numbers and budgetary considerations.

There was public outcry at the meeting. School Board candidate Liz Barker:

Liz Barker: We learned of a hiring freeze despite a long list of teacher vacancies. Reasons given for this budget shortfall included lower than expected enrollment, shifting demographics, and the impact of universal vouchers. Not listed is the outrageous lack of fiscal responsibility of this board majority.

RL: Meanwhile, the school board voted on a controversial change to align the boundaries of its members’ districts with those of the five Sarasota County Commission districts.

School board electoral districts, before (left) and after (right).

This redistricting move drew questions and prompted a public outcry as a waste of money.

Marjorie Peter: I didn’t ask you to manipulate a district to make it easier for me to vote. I research candidates, I vote countywide, and I’m satisfied. I don’t recall the voters complaining about the system. Have you manufactured a problem? Why and at whose suggestion? If there is no problem, please move on to the pressing issues.

RL: Typically, redrawing of boundary lines for political office is done every 10 years. But in August, school board member Karen Rose sought to redraw the lines early, with unclear motivation. Observers could not see any reason for the move.

Last month, the school board hired a consultant to quickly come up with such a plan, for $39,000.

As proposed, part of the boundary between District 3 would be extended north, crossing over US 41 and bounded by North River Road to the east, and added to District 5. To compensate for that gain in population from District 3 into District 5, the part of the district that is north of US 41 in the Warm Mineral Springs area and the area north of the Big Slough Creek would be moved from District 5 into District 3.

Liz Barker criticized redistricting as well.

LB: Most recently, the board majority spent $39,000 on the needless redistricting effort that we’re voting on tonight. At a time when we are constantly discussing the need for more education funding in order to expand our pre-K offerings, accelerate post-COVID learning, and ensure that our teachers are paid a living wage, this decision is tone deaf at best. When will students, educators, and families be a priority for this board majority?

RL: But there was little discussion from the school board members. Karen Rose did not address the subject at all. Tom Edwards, who has challenged the redistricting from the start, held fast.

Tom Edwards: I will state what I stated all along. I found this to be fiscally irresponsible. I found it to be of no concern to academic achievement, reading scores, all of the things that we claim to be focused on. I think most of the public comments echoed my sentiments. I also want to point out that $39,000 is not the entire amount because, as you can hear from our board attorney who has spent significant amount of time on this through billable legal hours, it’s more than that and we’ve already been down all this road. So I don’t see the need for it. I never heard a need for it. So I will not be supporting it.

RL: Surprisingly, School Board Chair Bridget Ziegler said she’d also cast a nay vote.

Bridget Ziegler: There was substantial changes post 2020. However, I don’t know that we are prepared to go through the evaluation and depth of what that number looked like. And so for those reasons, I won’t be supporting it.

RL:  The redistricting motion passed by a vote of three in favor and two opposed.

This is Ramon Lopez for WSLR News.

 

WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our 1/2 hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.