Ouster Exposes DeSantis’ ‘Politics-Free’ Schools Hypocrisy

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero/The Daily Beast/Getty

Welcome to DeSantis World, as manifested on Tuesday night by a local Florida school board with a new conservative majority whose first major action placed politics before kids—even as it declared there is no place for politics in the classroom.

And, by forcing out a highly regarded and resolutely apolitical school superintendent, the deciding members of the supposedly non-partisan board handed a victory not only to Gov. Ron DeSantis, but also to former National Security Adviser Gen. Mike Flynn, the Proud Boys, and other Trumpian extremists who have come to call Sarasota home.

The candidates in the midterm election that DeSantis backed outside his home state generally did not fare well. But if his blessing failed to put Joe O’Dea of Colorado, Don Bolduc of New Hampshire, and Mehmet Oz of Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate, DeSantis was able to demonstrate his prowess as a culture warrior with the election of Bridget Ziegler, Tim Enos, and Robyn Marinelli to the Sarasota County School Board. The trio ran as a team denoted by the first letter of their surnames.

“Vote ZEM,” read a mailer paid for by Friends of Ron DeSantis.

Two days before the Aug. 23 election, all three of the ZEM spoke at a rally that DeSantis held for them at the Sarasota Sahib Shrine Event Center. Their subsequent victory showed part of why Florida was the one place where a red wave actually materialized.

ZEM joined a conservative named Karen Rose and lone liberal Tom Edwards on the five-member board. The new trio was sworn in on Nov. 22 at the Venice Performing Arts Center, with Sarasota County School Superintendent Brennan Asplen presiding with the gavel, pending a vote for a new chair. The 4-1 majority chose Ziegler—a co-founder of the right wing “parental rights” group Moms for Liberty.

“I will pass the gavel,” Asplen said.

“Thank you… thank you,” Ziegler replied, sounding delighted as she set it before her.

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Less than seven minutes later, Rose made a motion for a special meeting of the board to be held on Nov. 29.

“I am asking for an agenda item recommending termination of the superintendent’s contract,” Rose said to everyone’s professed surprise.

On Tuesday there was an overflow crowd as the board met to consider the issue. Ziegler sat with the gavel before her and insisted that she was “shocked” by her fellow conservative’s move to fire the highly regarded Asplen. She allowed that she had said during a recent evaluation that he “needs improvement” in some regards, but only intended the criticism to be “absorbed as an opportunity for reflection.” She said he did not foresee the board “potentially firing” him.

“That was never on my radar,” she maintained. “But there was a constant drumbeat in the community about it and I don’t know where it came from. But here we are.”

She was as convincing as she had been when she disavowed the Proud Boys who appeared in a group photo at the ZEM victory party, one of them flashing a white power sign.

The meeting regarding the superintendent’s fate then moved on to the public comment section with a three-minute time limit per speaker. Several voiced approval for terminating Asplen. A woman who identified herself as Ashton Beaudry noted that a majority of voters in the election had expressed a desire for significant change.

“The results were clear in August,” she said.

With regards to the people who showed up in support of Asplen, she said, “These people don’t represent the majority of Sarasota County. That is what you bring and we’re done.”

You apparently being Asplen

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A number of Asplen’s supporters noted that he had not even had a chance to work with the newly elected board members.

“It just seems so orchestrated from the very beginning,” she said. “You guys don’t even have hot seats yet. Your butts haven’t been in the seats long enough and you’re already voting in favor of having a special meeting to fire the superintendent. That’s appalling. You should be ashamed of yourselves, all of you. “

You in this instance being the new members.

Then someone from the group with the most at stake took the podium..

“Hello, my name is Nora Mitchell,” she began. “I am a current high school senior at Booker High School here in the county… Like many of tonight's speakers, I'm somewhat resigned to what will happen here tonight. I understand that despite our best efforts, we will likely not sway any votes or change any minds.”

She spoke with a logic that eludes too many adults: “However, first and foremost, I will say firing the superintendent halfway through the school year is not what is best for the county.”

She had a message for the new school board.

“When you make this decision, do not disrespect or dehumanize our students. Do not claim that this decision is what is best for our students. Do not lie and say that you kept students in mind when you made this decision. Don’t mock us. Don’t lie and claim that you care about your students, your staff, or your teachers in this county. Because if you vote to fire Dr. Asplen, it is abundantly clear that you do not.”

She spoke truth to power.

“If we are taking this step into the county’s future, I demand you be honest,” she said. “Firing Dr. Asplen… is not for the benefit of the vast majority of this county. It is to benefit the political aspirations of our school board members and the politicians who supported them. And it is to benefit the parents and community members in this room who were manipulated into following them.”

Asplen himself got a chance to speak. He explained that an effective educator must be non-partisan.

“We help both sides,” he said. “We serve all of our kids and all of our families. That’s what we do all the time.”

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He asked if anybody present knew his personal political affiliation.

“No? I am a conservative Republican. I line up with these four folks right here politically,” he said.

He was speaking of the conservative majority. He then spoke of the lone liberal, Tom Edward.

“I don’t line up with him at all,” Asplen said. “But you know what? He’s working hard.”

Asplen allowed that he was mystified by the current situation. He recounted how it unfolded from his perspective.

“I’m working as superintendent, everything’s good,” he said. “I’m hearing some things that the new board might wanna do this, that, or the other. OK. Whatever. It’s on social media. OK. But then to sit there and all of a sudden it’s a 4-1 vote to talk about firing me.”

One thing was clear to him.

“You have to get the politics out of this school district,” he said. “If you don’t wanna listen to it, then don’t listen to it. Get rid of me, whatever. But I’m telling you right now, that has to happen. No matter who steps into this position.”

He noted that the Sarasota County School System still has an A rating, despite ”all the things that were going on outside, all the noise and everything.”

“You know why?” he went on. “We’re an A still because our school district, our school personnel, our principals, our APs [assistant principals], our teachers, everybody working with the students, they are the ones that kept the noise out of their minds. And they’ve been doing the same thing that they’ve been doing for a long, long time.”

The board then voted 4-1 to give Asplen the option of either resigning or being fired with cause. The schools would have to begin to search for a new superintendent in the middle of an academic year, just as the system was regaining some equilibrium.

The politicians of DeSantis World got what they wanted. And the big losers were the kids.

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