Herald-Tribune | by Ryan McKinnon | July 15, 2020
Newly appointed Sarasota School District Superintendent Brennan Asplen is banking on servant leadership and a listening ear as he takes the helm of the school district.
Brennan Asplen is wading into a sea of conflicts with a smile.
The newly appointed Superintendent of Sarasota County Schools is now the face of an administration that is stuck in the middle. Rivaling constituencies on all sides are fighting over if, when and how schools should reopen in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lawmakers and state officials want one thing. Teachers want another. Parents have demands, and School Board members have agendas. It’s not an easy spot for a brand new superintendent.
Asplen isn’t one to boast, but he is confident that his style of servant leadership can usher Sarasota through the unpredictable coming months.
“Everyone in the district needs to feel like a family, like we are all working together as one,” Asplen said Wednesday. “That’s the kind of atmosphere and environment we want.”
While Asplen will not be alone in trying to navigate a school district in the midst of a global pandemic, the Sarasota County School Board members who hired him believe that he will be unique in his ability to bring harmony to the discordant environment.
“He is going to get it done,” said board member Jane Goodwin. “And if he doesn’t, you can slap me.”
istening and explaining
Asplen’s character is what set him apart from the four other superintendent finalists.
While none of the others showed issues with integrity or an obvious zest for toxic interoffice politics, no one could match Asplen’s apparent gentility, willingness to listen and humility.
Shortly after becoming the deputy superintendent in St. Johns, Asplen was faced with community backlash for the amount of tests students were taking in school. As districts across the state sought to boost their district grades, several had implemented regular progress-monitoring tests to identify where students needed help.
“It was a huge issue. Parents, teachers and the community felt we definitely had too many high-stakes testing situations in Saint Johns,” Asplen said.
While other districts have slightly modified their testing schedules to pacify similar groups, Asplen said St. Johns listened to the community and ended up cutting the amount of tests in schools by roughly 50%.
Asplen said that district officials listened to the public and made a change that needed to happen.
“The culture and the climate needs to be positive and supportive,” Asplen said. “And we need to be sure that is occurring.”
Before rising to deputy superintendent, Asplen spent four years overseeing human resources in St. Johns. It was tough position, one where he was constantly adjudicating conflicts and making the type of personnel decisions that invariably leave someone unhappy.
He said overseeing those kinds of messy disputes taught him how to always work toward a “win-win” solution, which he said was best achieved by making sure everyone understood the reasoning for district decisions.
“It’s very important to explain your ‘why,‘” Asplen said. “Building that trust and making sure people under the ‘why’ behind your decision is very, very important.”
Making peace with the union
One of the chief constituencies Asplen will have to win over is the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association. SC/TA leaders were instrumental in shifting public opinion against former superintendent Todd Bowden, sending weekly emails to thousands of district employees, lambasting their boss.
SC/TA Executive Director Barry Dubin said he has worked amiably with plenty of superintendents before Bowden, who Dubin said was unnecessarily antagonistic and responsible for losing community trust. Dubin believes Asplen has the right personality for restoring relations with management.
“He seems like a peacemaker. Brennan seems like a genuinely decent man,” he said. “That doesn’t mean he can’t make mistakes, but I’d rather deal with a decent person who makes mistakes than someone who makes them out of bad intentions.”
Superintendents usually begin their tenure with lots of community outreach as they build goodwill and develop plans. But COVID-19 means there will be no grace period for Asplen.
District officials have spent months creating and then scrapping plans for reopening schools as both the virus and state directives have shifted. On Tuesday, the board approved a tentative plan to delay the start of school and implement both in-person and remote learning options for the fall.
Asplen said Wednesday that he had no intention of overhauling the plans district staff had developed. He has been too busy preparing for the reopening in St. Johns to critique Sarasota’s plan, and many of the measures he is working on are similar to those Sarasota will deploy.
When kumbaya isn’t possible
While Asplen is promising a kinder and gentler approach than his predecessor, superintendents can’t always be Mr. Rogers.
And Sarasota — where the teacher’s union recently used the sign in front of their building to alert the public that the former superintendent once visited a strip club — is not Mr. Rogers’ “Neighborhood of Make Believe.” The alliances are deep, there is longstanding bitterness, and the political reality is that it may only be a matter of time before the “Fire Asplen” Facebook groups start popping up.
Asplen said he knew his role would inevitably bring detractors, but his goal is to ensure the community could trust his integrity when he has to make the tough calls.
“There’s no getting around the fact that you have people who are upset in different situations, and people are going to be ecstatic about certain decisions,” Asplen said. “It’s about being sure that you have built up enough trust so that even if things don’t go a certain way, they still have enough trust that you are moving in the right direction.”