Education specifications for school district facilities a starting point for addressing transgender bathroom issues, superintendent says

Deputy Sarasota County schools superintendent tells the School Board that staff could ask an architect to look at ways to modify the district’s basic construction plans for future projects

Planning Director Kathie Ebaugh (left, foreground) and Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe address the School Board on April 19. Rachel Hackney photo
Planning Director Kathie Ebaugh (left, foreground) and Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe address the School Board on April 19. Rachel Hackney photo

A comment this week about the upkeep of toilets in the Sarasota County Schools segued into statements by Superintendent Lori White and Deputy Superintendent Scott Lempe that they already have begun discussing potential modifications to the district’s standard construction plans to incorporate bathrooms that could serve multiple uses — including offering privacy to transgender students.

Lempe and district Planning Director Kathie Ebaugh were seeking board suggestions for any changes to the latest draft of the district’s Capital Improvement Plan for the next five years when Chair Shirley Brown mentioned “little things.” Whenever she is on a campus, she told Ebaugh and Lempe, “I use the restrooms, and I’m always pleased [with their cleanliness].”

However, she continued, she recently used the restrooms available to the public for events in the Pine View School auditorium, and she noticed how worn the toilet seats looked.

That is a situation she has encountered in other schools, Brown added. “[The toilet seats] really are looking old at a lot of our facilities.”

“I would put that under the heading of ‘Maintenance,’” Lempe replied, asking her to let him know about specific schools, other than Pine View, where she had seen problems.

“Rather than waiting for me to use all the bathrooms in the district, maybe you should ask your staff to just take a look,” Brown told him.

He could ask the custodians to do that, Lempe said.

Board member Jane Goodwin suggested the cleaning solution used on the toilets could be the source of the wear.

School Board Chair Shirley Brown. Rachel Hackney photo
School Board Chair Shirley Brown. Rachel Hackney photo

“I’d much rather replace the toilet seat twice as often” if that proves to be the case, Brown added.

The Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) does include information about recurring expenses, Ebaugh pointed out; the toilet seats would be covered by that.

“We do care about even the small projects,” Brown replied.

Then board member Frank Kovach told Brown, “I have to say, my heart skipped a beat when you brought up bathrooms …”

The transgender discussion

The board has heard numerous public comments and received considerable email from community residents in regard to transgender students’ use of restroom facilities in district schools.

In a Feb. 8 memo, School Board attorney Art Hardy reported on the latest actions by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR), as well as federal court cases regarding the issue and policies of local governments in Florida and other agencies.

Hardy concluded, “The scope of transgender students’ rights under the law is far from clear. … What is clear is that the OCR and the [U.S.] Department of Justice have taken a consistent view upholding the right of transgender students to use the facilities that correspond with their gender identity as has the [Florida High School Athletic Association]. Perhaps because of the unsettled nature of the law, I am aware of no Florida school board that has enacted a policy specific to these issues.”

School Board attorney Art Hardy (left) and board Chair Frank Kovach confer. File photo
School Board attorney Art Hardy (left) and School Board member Frank Kovach confer. File photo

Given Hardy’s research, the Sarasota County School Board has taken no action on the issue, Scott Ferguson, district communications specialist, explained to The Sarasota News Leader in an April 20 email. “School and district administrators are considering requests from transgender students to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify on a case-by-case basis, guided by resolutions reached by other districts and the [OCR],” Ferguson added.

Following Brown’s and Kovach’s comments on April 19, board member Bridget Ziegler broached the transgender bathroom issue, asking about it solely from a financial standpoint, she stressed. When district staff plans construction in the future, she said, a restroom design that could accommodate transgender students “is a solution brought forward by a number of people.”

Brown noted that she had received a copy of what was probably an editorial from a publication in another state where multi-use, single-stall bathrooms were being constructed. Not only could those be used by transgender students in schools, Brown noted, but they also would be convenient for families with young children visiting a school, for example, and people with handicaps. She said she wondered whether that option might be more cost-effective than “gang bathrooms” in which all the stalls are designed as handicapped facilities.

Ziegler asked Ebaugh and Lempe to look into the expense, from a capital planning standpoint, “for future new construction projects …”

Then Lempe explained that he and White had talked about the issue a couple of times. “It all starts with ed spec,” he added, referring to the district’s education specifications for each type of school — elementary, middle and high school.

Several years ago, in an effort to hold down construction costs, district staff sought the creation of the facilities prototypes, which the School Board approved. Modifications to those plans can be made under special circumstances, as when a local government body, for example, allocates extra funding to a district project for a specific purpose such as a performing arts hall in a high school.

Lempe told the School Board that staff could ask an architect to examine the ed specs and determine how best to address the restroom issue. He noted that bathrooms are in classrooms in the primary grades, so the solution might be easier at the elementary level than at the middle and high school levels.

Superintendent Lori White. File photo
Superintendent Lori White. File photo

Under the CIP for the next five years, the next construction project will be an elementary school, Lempe pointed out.

School board member Caroline Zucker asked that the architect also look into redesigning locker rooms and showers.

“We don’t have to dive into [this subject] today,” Ziegler said.

“We haven’t discussed it as part of this project,” White explained, referring to the draft CIP. “I think it is an ed spec discussion,” she added. “I think that’s the place to start.”

Any proposals for ed spec changes will come to the School Board for approval, White pointed out.

As for the CIP for the next five years: Ebaugh reported that it would be ready for board adoption on May 3.

All the board members offered praise to Ebaugh and Lempe for the format of the document.