Johannes Werner: The Sarasota School Board has made national headlines for pushing controversial educational policies and causing or tolerating uproar during what should be standard meetings, and some community members have had enough of the chaos. The League of Women Voters of Sarasota County have turned the tables on the School Board. This time, they are the ones creating report cards for the board, grading its governance practices and ability to hold an orderly meeting. WSLR’s Sophia Brown has a closer look at how the nonpartisan organization is going about this.
Host: The League of Women Voters of Sarasota County first established their School Board Observer Corps within the past few months, tasked with attending each School Board meeting and writing their report cards. Each report card assigns the board a letter grade in areas of following a written agenda, adhering to Robert’s Rules of Order and delegating decisions to professional staff. The report cards also touch on how well the board does with limiting citizen’s comments to topics relevant to the board, allowing the speakers to personally attack the board members, and enforcing the speaker’s time limit.
The Manatee County branch of the League of Women Voters has a similar initiative where they provide summaries and comments on each meeting. But the Sarasota County branch is the first to actively grade its School Board.
The most recent report card grading the meeting on July 18, has a GPA of 2.0 with two A minuses, one B, three Ds and one D minus, something that in any other case would warrant a phone call to the parents.
Second Vice President of the League of Women Voters of Florida, Jill Lewis-Spector, explains how each report card is written.
Jill Lewis-Spector: There are usually at least three people who complete report cards for each board meeting that they attend. We go in our league T-shirts so people know that we are there and recording, and then one person looks at all three and finds commonalities. And when there’s any large disagreement, although that has not happened yet. But if there were a large disagreement, the people who had varying opinions would be contacted and get some resolution so that what’s reflected on the final report card is a summation of at least three people’s points of view about the meeting.
Host: Once the report card is written, it goes to the League of Women Voters of Florida Board of Directors for review.
Lewis-Spector had several examples as to why these report cards and other forms of outside mediation are needed for the Sarasota School Board. Back in March, School Board member Tom Edwards faced a series of homophobic comments from citizens, such as calling him a “LGBTQ groomer,” that caused him to walk out of a meeting. Four months later, and comments attacking Edwards’ sexuality and character are still common at these meetings with no intervention from Board Chair Bridget Ziegler.
Instead, the audience usually faces the brunt of Ziegler’s wrath, says Lewis-Spector.
JL: At the last board meeting I attended, she stopped one of the speakers and had a recess for five minutes because the speaker was criticizing a board member, and the board member felt he was being misquoted, and then an argument broke out between Mrs. Ziegler and the board member. So Mrs. Ziegler decided just to stop the speaker and chastise everybody.
Before that, at another meeting, when there was a speaker that began attacking one of the board members, the audience did get upset. And Mrs. Ziegler made some people go into the restroom or in the hallway where there was a PA system so they could hear the board proceedings, but they could not be in the room where the speakers were. You know, it seems unfair, that the audience is being chastised for reacting to the speaker, but the speaker is not being chastised for attacking a board member.
Host: Lewis-Spector also says that Zielger’s last-minute attempt to add discussion of Vermilion Education as a new agenda item during a workshop in June also raises red flags.
JL: It was sort of put on the agenda last minute at a workshop and so nobody was aware that this was on the agenda. In fact, one of the board members, Tom Edwards, spoke up about this had been just snuck in to the agenda of the workshop. And there was a lot of protests against Vermilion.
That really said to us, we need to do something where we put the board on notice that they have to be following an agenda that the public sees, they have to be transparent, they have to follow Robert’s Rules.
Host: Board Chair Ziegler did not respond to requests for comment by WSLR News by deadline.
While the board regularly gets good grades in following the written agenda and enforcing the public commenter’s time limit, it also consistently gets below average grades in stopping public commenters from making personal attacks against board members, ensuring that public commenters remain on topics related to the board, and running an orderly meeting.
These report cards are sent to the Sarasota School Board once they are written, and since the league has begun writing them, Lewis-Spector says that she has noted some changes for the better and how the board interacts with the public.
JL: One of the comments we made on our early report card was that, you know, when the members of the public come in the board was sitting at the dais and never interacting with the public. But they are coming down off the dais now, they’re mingling with the public, talking to people. So we think that commenting on that did make a difference.
Host: But there is more work to be done. Lewis-Spector argues that board training is essential for the members to learn to disagree with each other in respectful ways.
She also expressed concern that Board Chair Ziegler and new Superintendent Terrence Connor have started off with an adversarial relationship, since Ziegler was the only board member who did not vote to approve his employment contract last month.
JL: We’re also hoping at the board is going to do a little bit more with putting students first. We’re not sure that putting students is more important to some board members than actually fulfilling a political agenda. We really want to make sure that student achievement and positive learning conditions aren’t taking a backseat to some of the political ambitions that they may have.
Host: This has been Sophia Brown reporting for WSLR News.
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