Sarasota County School Board Questionnaire

The Tom Edwards Advantage:
Leading the Way for Every Student, Every Day

How long have you been a resident of Sarasota County?
7 years

Describe, specifically, what you see as the primary role and functions of the school board?
I see the role of a school board member as a Sarasota Ambassador of Public Education for Teacher Advocacy, High Achieving Student Outcomes, and Budget Compliance. This position requires keen financial oversight to keep students, teachers, and the district safe and financially secure while proactively keeping taxes low and maintaining or enhancing property values.

Another role is partnering with the superintendent to create policy and procedures that promote a “best place to work environment” with high morale, ensuring our “A” rating and becoming the #1 school district in the state.

Every student graduating with a plan, such as enrolled, enlisted, or employed, can deliver 100% graduation rates and high post-graduation success.

Students, teachers, families, all day all the time.

Why are you running for office?
I am running for three reasons:

  • To protect public education
  • To advance early education, dual language, and total family engagement/support to further improve 3rd grade reading scores
  • To ensure a safe, high-achieving academic environment for ALL students

Have you ever run for public office before? If so, for what office?
I successfully ran in 2020 for the Sarasota County School Board.  I am the incumbent.

Why are you more qualified than your opponents?
I have a proven, successful track record of vast teacher, family, and community support with a long list of accomplishments that sets me apart from my opponents. A partial list of my accomplishments includes: the proactive creation, in partnership with the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, of the initial Trades Academy at Riverview High School, which has been replicated at Venice and North Port High schools; the construction of a new building at Suncoast Technical College, North Port campus, with the financial partnerships of Sarasota Memorial Hospital and the City of North Port; an AI Film Lab starting this fall at Booker High School; and saving our Pre-K program from termination by the most recent interim superintendent. Many of these accomplishments include extra funding that I personally raised.

Additionally, School Board financial management is not the same as basic accounting and budgeting principles, it is a world of its own. I have spent four years on the job, along with significant professional development to partner peer-to-peer with the superintendent and the CFO in all financial matters.

Lastly, my significant community engagement, visibility, and accessibility have fostered a lasting bond of trust.

Do you have any children in any public or private elementary, middle or high school? If so, what school(s)?
The most successful boards are when member compositions are from diverse backgrounds and ideologies but share a common goal. I don’t have children of my own, but if I did, I assure you they would be attending our public schools. I am honored to serve with our highly qualified teachers, administrators, and operational support teams. I don’t think having children is a qualifier, but I do believe it is disqualifying to have school-age children and send them for a private education while serving on a public school board. It is a conflict of interest.

What are the top three issues facing Sarasota’s public schools, and how should they be addressed?
It is impossible to prioritize only three issues. Focusing on the main problem facing the Sarasota School District, the privatization of public education via the voucher program is a way to address all critical issues simultaneously. I am an advocate of school choice, which is different from privatization.

There are two ways to solve this privatization problem:

  1. At the ballot box and by speaking truth to power at the state legislative level;
  2. Encouraging all areas of the school district to improve and advance so that our public education will become more competitive and, ideally, become the best game in town. This will help ensure parents will choose our public schools with their vouchers. Becoming more competitive includes, but is not limited to, advancing Pre-K, dual language education, enhanced ESE programming and support, career academies and labs growth for the advancement of every student graduating with a plan, affordable housing for entry-level teachers and support staff, attracting the best talent coupled with enhanced employee assistance partner programs to retain them.

Even before I became a school board member, I foresaw that the goal of privatization by some influencers was going to become one of the hottest issues affecting the longevity and sanctity of public schools. I spend a great deal of my time finding ways to make our schools more competitive, more sought after, and more appealing to diverse interests.

Unnecessary superintendent turnover stalls or eliminates any advancement in these areas.

What grade would you give Superintendent Terrence Connor — A to F … and why?
Of course, Mr. Connor deserves an A. Although Mr. Connor’s appointment was not unanimous, he seems to have earned the board’s approval with the high quality of his work. There were big shoes to fill after the board brutally terminated a much beloved superintendent. Fortunately, Mr. Connor came through with flying colors. He has assessed our district’s strengths and weaknesses and designed and implemented Phase 1 of a long-term strategic plan while dealing with the board’s dysfunction and a salacious board member scandal. His temperament and optimistic style is a perfect fit for our school district culture. I am confident he will only improve as he gains additional experience and becomes more familiar with Sarasota.

What grade would you give the school board for managing the district’s tax dollars — A to F … Why?
That is a tough question to answer and here’s why. I was adamantly opposed to the termination of the previous superintendent. Almost all the programming that the new superintendent is advancing started with Dr. Asplen. I am enormously grateful that we have Mr. Connor, but we lost two valuable years post-COVID due to an unnecessary superintendent reset that cost the district nearly $500,000 in severance, legal fees, and replacement.

Additionally, the school board hired a consulting firm to help with the needless reorganization of our voting districts, which was done two years ago. The firm determined that the final map adopted by our board was less evenly distributed in population than the original one. Then why was it approved? The only reason for this unnecessary $50,000 expense that I have been able to uncover is one of my opponents was moved from District 5, where he ran in the last school board cycle, and is now running again, but in District 3.
Both expenditures of tax dollars were initiated by Karen Rose but supported by the board majority. I would rather have spent those dollars in the classroom. The value of the time our students lost during the superintendent reset is very hard to calculate but nonetheless costly and not replenishable.

What would you change to improve the district’s fiscal management?
I would ask for a policy that requires a strong School Board member onboarding program along with an annual school board member requirement for professional development relating to school board fiscal governance. School board finance and accounting is very complicated and ever-changing.

Additionally, I would ask for more public transparency, assigning costs to unfunded legislative mandates and net costs associated with the student voucher movement in and out of the district. The “why” associated with the student voucher movement is information that is just as valuable to maintain cost-effective competitiveness.

What would be your priorities if elected?
I have two overarching priorities, and everything else falls within them: Student outcomes and safety. One is not more important than the other; they are equal. Of course, to achieve the best student outcomes requires a commitment to hiring the best educators and staff. The safety issues require dollars that I would rather spend in the classroom, but in today’s world we must allocate significant funds to ensure the safety and security of all students and staff.

The tasks associated with achieving the desired results in both areas are ever-changing and require continuous scrutiny. As one of your school board members, you can trust these two priorities direct my every vote and activity.

What is your position on the state’s school choice laws?
I am a fan of school choice and proud of many of the district-approved charter schools that we have. During my tenure, I have happily approved renewal for some of the most successful ones. I believe the legislature has been too heavy handed, forcing choice that allows for an expensive uneven playing field for our district public schools. I am adamantly opposed to for-profit charter schools as they are a blatant misuse of public education tax dollars. Finally, I believe the advancement of choice should 100% be in local rule so that Sarasota can maintain its high standards and control over saturation that could potentially cause a fiscal disaster harming the district’s financial health and our property values. The “choice” statues may help solve problems in some districts but are not a one size fits all solution, especially for Sarasota.

How should the board’s “public to be heard” part of the school board meetings be changed — or not changed at all? Why?
For the first two years of my service in the boardroom, public comments were dominated by Moms for Liberty topics such as CRT, Don’t Say Gay, social-emotional-learning, masks, and book banning. They were often disruptive, highly offensive, and full of staff and board member attacks. At that time, I proposed a two-phase public comment approach in which initial comments could only be related to agenda items so the board could hear pertinent public opinion before we voted on the board’s business. Phase 2 of public comments would be after the conclusion of board business when the public could offer comments on any topic they wished. This offered the public two passes at the podium totaling five minutes, not just one pass for three minutes. My concept was turned into a very successful policy but was immediately terminated when the ZEM (Ziegler, Enos, Marinelli) board members were installed. Recent board-induced topics such as terminating a Superintendent, Vermillion, Redistricting, the Zeigler resolution, etc., have provoked an increase in public commenters to speak about these agenda items along with non-agenda items such as Mrs. Zeigler’s “Real Men are Not Women” t-shirt and the Zeigler sex scandal. Public comments are taking hours, preventing the board from getting to the agenda at hand. Aside from the Zeigler scandal, the newly reinstated policy will not reduce extended hours of public comments as long as the board’s agenda remains politically controversial. However, I was for it then, and I’m for it now.

What is your response and position on the U.S. Department of Education’s April rule changes to Title IX?
Any additional legislative measures that offer safety, equality, and protection from harassment for ALL Sarasota students I am in favor of. As to whether the executive branch of the federal government had the authority to institute additional protected class changes, it is now in the hands of the courts. Pending any court orders, these changes become law on August 1st, and any violation of Title IX could subject the Sarasota County School District to costly litigation and penalties that could cripple our financial health. As a Constitutional officer, I would advise the board to pay close attention to any court orders and associated dates and follow the law. It is possible that the courts will not rule before August 1st. Any guidance from the FDOE that contradicts federal law cannot protect our school district from litigation. Additionally, I have read all the government mandated changes, sought legal opinion, and realized the bulk of these changes are enhancements of procedures for this widely popular law, likely to be approved by the courts. One way or another, there will most likely be Title IX improvements.