On the last day of the school year,  Manatee County School Board members Scott Hopes and Dave Miner stood beside each other at a district parking facility to wave at bus drivers setting off for their final routes before summer vacation. But several weeks prior, another parking lot encounter placed these elected officials in the news for less celebratory reasons. Shortly after a School Board meeting in March that included a testy exchange between Miner and Hopes about union negotiation details, Miner left the building shouting. Surveillance video of the night shows that Miner then got into his car and pulls out of a space inches from Hopes. He starts to accelerate toward his colleague, who jumps back in alarm, before stopping abruptly. As Hopes moves out of the vehicle’s path, Miner turns away and races from the lot. Hopes reported the incident to police, informing the officer within earshot of a reporter that Miner was lucky Hopes didn’t have his gun. “That was the most fear I’ve ever felt as an adult,” Hopes says. “But I think that’s behind us.” Miner did not return repeated calls for comment.

ILLUSTRATION BY WOODY WOODMAN.

With an evening ending so close to literal blows, it makes tense exchanges in Sarasota County this spring seem almost quaint, despite the fact one School Board member in that district called for another member to step down for suggesting a third one was dumb via a text. Schoolyard taunts and meet-me-outside bravado seems to have permeated the dialogue around Gulf Coast school systems at precisely the moment when leaders feel pressure to keep campuses safe from deadly violence. It begs a political question so cliché it’s been a punch line on The Simpsons for decades: Won’t somebody please think of the children?

But local government has never been a stranger to board dysfunction, and officials bracing for election year concede the rancor may not stop soon.

 

Officials throughout the region acknowledge emotion turned up as the heated issue of gun violence became the most pressing for schools across Florida. A February 14 shooting that left 17 dead at a Parkland high school sparked calls for action in Tallahassee, and lawmakers responded by passing a school safety bill providing for greater hardening of schools and the addition of more security personnel on campuses, but it left much implementation to local school boards.

On March 22, the Sarasota County School Board discussed with Sheriff Tom Knight who should be financially responsible for paying additional student resource officers on campus, something Knight advocated for immediately after the Parkland shooting. But with no promise of full funding from the state, neither the sheriff nor school district seemed keen on picking up the bill. The biggest blow to board relations, though, came as School Board member Eric Robinson made sure the sheriff knew whose side he was on via private text. “Stay strong, don’t cave,” he wrote to Knight. “Make us pay 100 percent. F them.”

Knight wrote back frustration with School Board Chair Shirley Brown. “I’m shocked that Shirley is so dumb,” he texted Robinson. “I am not,” Robinson replied.

When the messages went public, it left both Robinson and Knight confessing poor judgment. Robinson at an April board meeting read a public apology, his voice sometimes breaking. “I was in the minority. I should have simply accepted the situation and moved on,” he said. “However my passion on the subject turned to frustration. I sent some texts that were clearly based on emotions I felt at the time, and which disparaged other board members, and for that I am sorry.”

Weeks later, it’s still a sore subject to raise. “I was upset. I behaved badly and I was wrong,” Robinson says. He remains frustrated at the direction the board chose to go, electing to launch a dedicated school district police force and to stop employing student resource officers from other agencies. But as for board relations, he maintains the exchange launched because of an unnecessary divide between the schools and an outside official. “I was trying to bridge that gap,” he says.

For School Board Member Caroline Zucker, the communication crossed a red line. She says Robinson should have resigned his post, and still feels that way. “You are supposed to be sitting there discussing an issue, not texting what you are doing to the person you are supposed to be talking to at the table,” she says. A 20-year veteran of the Sarasota school board, Zucker says she’s never seen such a divided body as is in place today. And while she has political disagreements with Robinson ally Bridget Ziegler, she says it’s only Robinson trying to undermine the role of the board.

And what of Brown, the subject of the most newsworthy text? She wouldn’t go so far as to call for Robinson’s ouster but labeled his actions “unprofessional.” “I’ll continue to work with him,” she says coolly. But both Brown and Robinson acknowledge much of the breakdown in board relations centers around communications between a divided board and a new superintendent, Todd Bowden.  Decisions still need to be made on school security, but the board also must complete union negotiations and other politically charged issues. In a period where many high-profile decisions come down to 3-2 votes, it’s unlikely conversation will chill soon. Brown, who will run for re-election in August, says she will try to keep composure on the whole board in the meantime. “You don't have to like everybody you work with,” she says. “I’m not here to throw barbs. All I can say is we should be working together to do what’s right.”

In Manatee County, attempts at political ouster haven’t waited for an election. Three times this year, board members called for Hopes to step aside as School Board chair after questioning if he kept too tight a grip on discussion of agenda items, from contract talks to election schedules. The Manatee board too cast its share of divided votes on such issues as the timing for a school tax referendum. The community seems equally divided, with the new tax in March narrowly passing with 51.4 percent of the vote.

School Board member Charlie Kennedy joined calls for Hopes’ ouster, the last one after learning of Hopes’ gun comment about Miner after the parking lot incident. He also had a public sit-down with Hopes in a workshop setting. At this point, he only hopes disagreement about past issues won’t prevent action on a slew of pressing issues in front of the board. That only became more important with the May news that Manatee Superintendent Diana Greene will step down to take over the top job at the Duvall County school district. “I made a motion saying he [Hopes] should step down as chair, I was not successful and that’s fine,” Kennedy says. “November elections are coming and after that a new board chair will be seated then.”

And those elections hold the potential to reshape both boards significantly. 

Neither Robinson nor Miner must stand for election this year. But in Sarasota, Brown faces a challenge from Karen Rose, Ziegler must fend off Nick Guy and School Board Member Jane Goodwin goes up against Pamela Ann Gavette, Richard Paul Linden and Justin Cody Willis. In Manatee, Kennedy is running against challenger Alice Kaddatz, Hopes faces Joe Stokes and James Daniel, and School Board Member John Colon  must contend with James Golden and Jessica Lynn Patterson. Voters countywide in each jurisdiction will vote in nonpartisan elections on August 28, with runoffs scheduled for Nov. 6, if necessary. While no incumbent up for election gets a pass this year, each feels confident moving forward, but they also know elections have a tendency to turn small squabbles into public discussions. That means divisions may grow sharper before every fracture gets smoothed.