Chair Shirley Brown first chose St. Johns County candidate
A process that began formally in the spring and drew a total of 49 applicants from across the United States ended up with the only homegrown candidate winning the job.
During their regular meeting on Oct. 18, the Sarasota County School Board members initially voted 4-1 to name Todd Bowden, executive director of career, technical and adult education for the district, to replace Superintendent Lori White when she retires on Feb. 28, 2017.
Chair Shirley Brown initially was in the minority on the decision, citing the emphasis Brennan Asplen III, deputy superintendent of the St. Johns County Schools, would place on early childhood education. However, immediately after the first vote, Brown made a motion to ensure the decision would be unanimous, and it passed quickly.
In a district news release issued after the meeting, Bowden said, “I am extremely grateful to the School Board for the confidence they have placed in me.” He credited White for being “responsible in large part for my success in this district. It is such a well-run, respected district and I want to perpetuate that trust the community has in us.”
During the board members’ comment period, Caroline Zucker pointed out that she had been involved in the hiring of four or five superintendents during her long tenure on the School Board. “The two candidates that were the most successful in Sarasota County were Wilma Hamilton and Lori White, and they are both homegrown candidates,” she said.
Board member Frank Kovach drew laughter from the approximately 70 people in the audience when he said, “Caroline and I have agreed on so much lately that I just can’t hardly stand it.” Nonetheless, Kovach continued, he had been on the board during searches for four superintendents. “Without a shadow of a doubt, the two finest … were Wilma Hamilton and Lori White.”
Kovach also pointed to the changes in the 21st century in regard to career and technical education (CTE), noting that Bowden has had “a huge, huge influence on what’s happened to CTE in this district.”
Those credentials were underscored by Mireya Eavey, executive director of CareerEdge Funders Collaborative, during public comments to the board members prior to their discussion about White’s replacement.
Although she said she was speaking as a private citizen who grew up in the community and graduated from Sarasota High School, Eavey did talk, too, of how closely she has worked with Bowden in CareerEdge’s efforts to assist manufacturers with meeting workforce demands. “We have been able to accomplish many things with his leading Suncoast Technical College,” she said.
Bowden is responsible for making Suncoast Technical College (STC) “the premier institution that it is today,” School Board member Jane Goodwin pointed out. Given the fact that so many students graduate from college heavily in debt, Goodwin added, it is imperative for the school district to do all it can to ensure young people can pursue other career options.
It would have been unheard of 20 years ago for a School Board to even consider a candidate for superintendent who was in charge of career and technical education, Kovach pointed out.
Yet, “fewer and fewer jobs require four years of a college degree,” Kovach said. “[Bowden] understands what it takes to be a successful student and a successful person in the workforce today.”
Bowden may be recognized as the head of STC, Zucker pointed out, but “when I saw the list of responsibilities that [he] is in charge of, I was literally blown away.”
Goodwin also noted that Bowden has an undergraduate degree in accounting and an MBA. “We are losing some of our … best financial staff at the same time that we’re losing our dear Lori White,” Goodwin continued. “[Bowden] comes with fresh eyes …”
Al Weidner, deputy chief financial officer for the district, also will retire in 2017. He began his employment with the Sarasota County Schools in 1982.
School Board member Bridget Ziegler joined Brown in voicing a strong interest in the early education focus Asplen would have brought to the district. However, speaking after Zucker, Goodwin and Kovach had made their remarks, Ziegler said, “I want the incoming superintendent to have the full support of the board.”
Brown pointed to Asplen’s “strong academic background,” adding that she felt the district needed Bowden to continue his work at STC. “I think Mr. Asplen would be the best fit for our community.”
Nonetheless, Goodwin talked of the “many, many calls and emails” she had received from the leaders of businesses and nonprofit foundations in the county, all of whom were supportive of Bowden. “I think that he can hit the ground running. … I know how much he loves the Sarasota County Schools.”
Kovach’s motion also authorized Brown to begin contract negotiations with Bowden. A district news release issued after the Oct. 18 meeting said that process is expected to begin at the board’s next regular meeting, set for 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 1
The release added, “After an approximately two-week overlap starting in mid-February, Bowden will begin as the next superintendent March 1 [in 2017].”
The ‘sour note’
Although no board member made any allusion on Oct. 18 to the matter, the executive director of the Sarasota Classified/Teachers Association, Barry Dubin, told The Sarasota News Leader after the vote that he was disappointed the board members chose Bowden. While no complaint ever was filed with the district, White recently authorized an independent investigation into allegations that Bowden had taken inappropriate action with, and made unwelcome remarks of a sexual nature to, two female employees when they were at STC. The investigation found no grounds for action against Bowden.
Nonetheless, Dubin told the News Leader, “I’m not even sure our president is comfortable meeting with him alone.”
The union president is a woman, Pat Gardner.
Along with helming STC, Bowden is responsible for the daily operations of the district’s Suncoast Polytechnical High School, the Adult and Community Enrichment program and the Sarasota Virtual Academy. He has been in charge of CTE and adult education in the district since December 2012, though he was named director of what was then the Sarasota County Technical Institute in August 2007.
From August 1995 until his employment in Sarasota County, Bowden served in a number of positions in the Hillsborough County School District, including principal of Gary Adult High School and Aparicio-Levy Technical Center and assistant principal for curriculum at Bloomingdale High School.
A Florida native, he holds graduate and undergraduate degrees from the University of South Florida — including a Doctor of Education — and he earned his MBA from Florida State University.
In the cover letter with his application, Bowden wrote, “For the last nine years, I have served this district with pride. I am proud of my reputation in this community. This is my home. As you consider who will build on our success as the next Superintendent, I ask that you look to one of your own. You know my commitment.”