It wouldn’t be a Sarasota School Board candidate forum without politics coming into play.
Voters had their first chance to see many of the Sarasota School Board candidates in the same room during a Sarasota Tiger Bay Club candidate forum Thursday evening.
With three School Board members up for re-election, including the only Democrat on the board and School Board chairwoman Bridget Ziegler, the August 28 primary could have significant implications for the board’s makeup and its decision-making based on who gets elected.
Four candidates are running for the District 5 seat, the southernmost area of the school district that encompasses parts of Venice, North Port and Englewood. So far, District 5’s race is the most crowded, with only two candidates each, an incumbent and their opponent, running for Districts 1 and 4. The Tiger Bay Club will hold another candidate forum on June 21 with incumbents Shirley Brown and Bridget Ziegler and their opponents, political newcomers Karen Rose and Nick Guy.
Four months after the school shooting that killed 17 in Parkland and spawned sweeping state legislation requiring an armed guard in every school, school security was the primary topic of interest during Thursday’s conversation. Some of the candidates were critical of the schools’ recent decision to move towards an internal police department rather than partner with local law enforcement to place officers in each school, as they have with middle and high schools in past years.
“I personally believe that this function is best handled by our law enforcement agencies,” said substitute teacher and School Board candidate Richard Linden. “It’s not for the board to be creating its own general security force and remove that partnership.”
At his statement, some of the audience members clapped. The internal police department has received mixed reviews from community members, some of whom have expressed concern at the speed of the venture by getting 21 deputies and a police chief on the ground by August. Local police chiefs and Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight have said in previous interviews that they felt the district was not clearly communicating with them.
As one of the board’s three firm supporters of the internal police department, Goodwin defended her position Thursday.
“Safety and security is the most important thing for us on the School Board. It’s non-negotiable, it’s the very best that we can provide,” Goodwin said. “We are very much ahead of a lot of other counties in what we’re doing, but we can never be safe enough.”
Both former teacher Pamela Gavette and North Port Charter Review Advisory Board member Justin Cody Willis, also a former teacher, advocated for continued partnerships with local law enforcement. When asked in a quick, lightning-round of questions, all four candidates said they were against arming teachers in the controversial guardian program proposed as one of the school security options by the state.
Goodwin in particular found herself taking heat during the candidate forum, since many of the questions offered a negative interpretation of the current School Board. Moderator and local attorney Morgan Bentley asked candidates both how they would adjust board decorum, in a year that has seen a variety of spats between board members, and react to superintendent Todd Bowden, who was a controversial choice to some after three women accused him of sexual harassment while he was a finalist for the position.
While Linden jokingly pushed for “board turnover,” both Willis and Gavette said the board needed to practice good behavior, likening the board members to students in the classroom and the example they needed to set for them. In the fall, board members attended a number of training sessions directed at curbing any arguments, but those tensions have not entirely abated.
Goodwin attributed any dissension on the board to varying viewpoints. Ziegler and School Board member Eric Robinson are considered by some as the pro-charter school camp, although Ziegler has argued that she supports school choice, not charter schools. But those core beliefs have placed strain on certain conversations during board meetings.
The support of the superintendent by at least three board members has also produced friction among board members and the community because of divided views on the district’s top leader. Ziegler and Robinson have been more openly critical of the superintendent, whereas the other three board members have largely viewed their role as policy-makers rather than running the school district.
“If you want to know how I feel about the superintendent, I think he’s doing a good job, but we have not evaluated him, we do that later this summer,” Goodwin said.
School Board members will evaluate Bowden for the first time at their meeting on July 17, nearly a year and a half after he first became superintendent.
The three remaining candidates expressed varying degrees of concern with Bowden, particularly Gavette and Linden, who said their opinions came from conversations with teachers and, in Linden’s case, personal experience in the classroom.
The forum took a particularly political turn during the question-and-answer session, when School Board member Caroline Zucker posed a question to all four candidates: “Would I find something on your online profile that you didn’t like and wouldn’t be interested in sharing and that would prevent you from being a School Board member?”
Willis immediately stepped in and claimed the question was for him. He cited recent posts on his campaign Facebook page from an anonymous account by the name of “Sabal Palm” implying that Willis had unfairly received the deed to the house of former North Port City Commissioner Althea “Buddy” Hughes. The former commissioner died of cancer in May, but Willis had been her health surrogate and calls himself her grandson.
“I was her primary caregiver for the last three years, I have taken diligent care of her day and night, to the point where my kids would say, ‘Daddy, do you have to go and take care of Buddy tonight?'” Willis said. “…Buddy decided to leave me and my five children this home, and the reason why she wanted us to take this home was so that I would run for School Board, since I was 100 feet out of the district, just to show the support she had of me. Caroline [Zucker] went to Buddy several times to talk me out of running.”
The question was polarizing for audience members, some of whom came up to Zucker after the forum to criticize her for the question. But Willis said the incident had worked out in his favor.
“A lot of people that weren’t paying attention to me now will, and I thank Caroline for her question because there are going to be a lot of hard questions that we have to handle on that board,” Willis said in an interview after the forum.