TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis put his weight behind dozens of conservative school board candidates across Florida during the midterms. Now they're in office - and are purging some educational leaders who enforced Covid-19 mandates.
New board members in two GOP-leaning counties essentially sacked their school superintendents over the span of one week. The ousters were spurred by how the superintendents carried out local policies like efforts to support the rights of parents, an issue inflamed by schools imposing student mask mandates last fall in defiance of DeSantis.
And while not tied to the 2022 election, the school board in Broward County earlier this month fired its superintendent through an effort led by five members appointed by DeSantis. All combined, school boards with ties to DeSantis pushed out three superintendents in November alone - and each of them served over districts that implemented student mask mandates.
"We had a wave in school districts that spit in parents' faces," said state Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay), who earlier this year sought to punish schools with mask mandates. "And now the people who did that are gone."
In Brevard and Sarasota counties, embattled school leaders have faced immediate pressure from newly-installed board members and offered to leave voluntarily rather than risk a vote on their terminations.
The boards in both counties now have conservative majorities who sought a change in leadership immediately after the midterms. Although school boards are nonpartisan posts, lines between Democratic and Republican candidates were drawn in many counties through endorsements from each party as well as outside groups. The newly-elected board members in these cases support parental rights while opposing critical race theory and teaching gender orientation in schools.
DeSantis in particular used his clout to endorse more than two dozen school board candidates during the 2022 election cycle, a rare move for a Florida governor that came with $1,000 cash contributions from DeSantis and other GOP lawmakers. Most of the candidates DeSantis endorsed won their elections and are now transforming the make-up of school district leadership and will have huge influence over policies affecting hundreds of thousands of students in the state.
Both Sarasota and Brevard's school boards put the superintendents on the chopping block the same day that new members endorsed by DeSantis and conservative organizations like Moms for Liberty were sworn into office.
Sarasota board members called Superintendent Brennan Asplen's job into question at a meeting Tuesday night specially called to discuss his contract. After fielding about four hours of public comment, mostly in support of the superintendent, board members vented criticisms over student performance in reading, how he handled masking students and a perceived lack of transparency from Asplen.
Understanding he may not have a job much longer, Asplen offered up his resignation on Monday night - the day before the board met to weigh his ouster. But the superintendent also fought at the meeting to keep his job by attempting to punch holes in the critiques from board members.
"I have a feeling I'm going to be fired after tonight because I just can't hold this back," Asplan told the board from as a preface.
Asplan said that some of the board's comments were "ridiculous" given that he had been at the school since 2020, a timeframe that included the Covid-19 pandemic. And yet despite the coronavirus uprooting education, Sarasota earned "A" grades from the state both years. The superintendent also claimed he was being shut out by board members since the election and noted that he enacted a mandatory student masking policy for only three weeks, and that was due to Sarasota's board voting 3-2 in favor of the mandate.
"You have to get the politics out of this school district," Asplan told the board. "This school district could be No. 1, but we shoot ourselves in the foot every single time. We are getting in our own way all the time."
It was clear after Asplan addressed the board that a separation would be imminent. Board members said they felt the relationship with the schools chief was "adversarial" and beyond repair. Many of the claims by Asplan were "not accurate," according to new board chair Bridget Ziegler.
"I am very concerned," said Zeigler, who was endorsed by DeSantis and co-founded Moms for Liberty. "I don't know how respectfully we build a relationship where we are functioning together for the right reasons with mutual respect."
One Sarasota board member, Thomas Edwards, noted the similarity between the pushes to remove school leaders in Florida and elsewhere in the country, including in Berkley County, South Carolina, where a newly-elected school board fired a superintendent. Edwards suggested a possible political motive behind the move and lobbied for Asplen to be granted a chance to fix issues spelled out by the board.
"Whatever rationales I'm going to hear tonight, I really have to throw out the window. Because we just have to - all of as a community - look at the tealeaves," Edwards said.
But Edwards fell short of reaching the majority of the board, including the members endorsed by DeSantis and other conservatives, who voted 4-1 to move forward with negotiating a separation agreement with the schools chief.
The local teachers union in Sarasota planned a rally in support of Asplen ahead of the meeting Tuesday and dozens lined up to speak on his behalf. But local organizers in Brevard County didn't demonstrate when its superintendent, Mark Mullins, was pushed out last week.
Instead, the Brevard Federation of Teachers contented that Mullins' ouster could lead to positive changes within local schools. Union leaders claim that district officials did too little to quell student discipline issues and lingering teacher vacancies facing the county.
"Students verbally and physically abuse teachers and staff, and there will be no end in sight unless meaningful systemic changes are made," union leaders wrote in a statement Monday on social media.
Similar to Sarasota, the leadership shift in Brevard was aided by new board members. Discussions to split with Mullins came at the suggestion of Megan Wright, who was backed in her race by DeSantis and installed on the board and elected vice chair about four hours before triggering the change.
Elsewhere in Florida, new board members endorsed by DeSantis are also scoring leadership roles. In Lee County, for example, new board members Armor Persons and Sam Fisher, both endorsed by DeSantis, were elected as chair and vice chair of the school board, as reported by the Fort Myers News-Press.
With at least three superintendent jobs opening in Florida, these new-look school boards are now facing the critical task of finding new leaders.
Teachers union leaders are staying optimistic that board these members will be focused on supporting educators and staff in local schools, said Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. And in choosing a new superintendent, they hope board members will pick candidates who are aligned with the community and not only DeSantis.
"Firing is the easy part," Spar said. "The hard part is finding the right person."