Despite outcry from parents, teachers, and students, newly elected right-wing school board members in Sarasota County, Florida on Tuesday became the latest allies of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis to oust a school superintendent over the district's adherence to public health guidance during the coronavirus pandemic.
Dozens of community members gathered at a school board meeting in Sarasota County on Tuesday evening to support Brennan Asplen, the superintendent of schools since 2020, whose contract was the subject of the meeting.
The board met the same day new members, including Chair Bridget Ziegler, were sworn in. Ziegler, a co-founder of right-wing group Moms for Liberty, was one of two dozen school board candidates who received an endorsement from DeSantis during the midterm elections. The majority of those candidates, who received $1,000 contributions from the governor, won their elections.
At the meeting, members condemned Asplen "for not pushing back on the mask mandate" that was in place for three weeks in 2021 after the school board voted 3-2 in favor of the mandate, making Sarasota County the first in the state to defy DeSantis' law blocking Covid-19 mitigation measures.
On Tuesday the board ultimately voted 4-1 in favor of negotiating a separation agreement with Asplen, after another board member, Thomas Edwards, warned the move would be a "carbon copy" of a similar ouster in Berkeley County, South Carolina earlier this month.
In that case, new school board members who had been endorsed by Moms for Liberty voted to fire the district's superintendent and ban classroom discussions of racism in history and the present day.
Asplen is not the only school leader who has been pushed out of a superintendent position in Florida by DeSantis allies citing objections to public health protocols.
Five members of the Broward County school board this month fired Superintendent Vickie Cartwright over a grand jury report on the 2018 Parkland shooting. Like Asplen, Cartwright presided over the district during the pandemic and "faced frustration from some parents" over Covid-19 mitigation measures, which were implemented in violation of DeSantis' order.
All of the members who voted to fire Cartwright were DeSantis appointees following the removal of previous members after a school safety investigation stemming from the 2018 Parkland school shooting.
WUSF Public Media reported earlier this year that the county is undergoing "a transformational shift" with the governor's allies poised to take "a rare opportunity to advance conservative policy priorities in one of the state's most Democratic-leaning counties."
The superintendent of schools in Brevard County was also pushed out last week, hours after DeSantis-aligned school board members were sworn in.
Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, noted that parents from across the political spectrum have spoken out against the dismissals of school leaders in the Florida counties in recent weeks—"but to little avail."
"The new playbook of total ideological control is in full swing," said Friedman.
Bill Kimler, a former candidate for state House in South Carolina, noted that a right-wing takeover of school boards like the one in Berkeley County "is happening elsewhere in the country."
"Every election cycle, we need to view school board positions with the same level of enthusiasm as we do the president of the USA," said Kimler. "Our kids' education cannot be left in the hand of extremists."