Sarasota County Schools superintendent refuses to allow Suncoast Builders Association to use Florida House as headquarters

County Commission sale of Florida House removed from March 5 agenda

This is a banner from what was The Florida House Institute website, prior to the institute’s collaboration with Southface. Image courtesy Florida House Institute

With no explanation on March 5, Sarasota County Commission Chair Michael Moran announced that the sale of the Florida House to a relatively new nonprofit organization had been removed from the board’s Consent Agenda of routine business matters that day.

As it turned out, a letter from Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Terry Connor prompted the action, The Sarasota News Leader learned through a public records request.

As the News Leader reported last week, the proposal called for the Business Industry Institute, a nonprofit established by what was then the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association (MSBIA), to pay $10 for the structure, which the county owns on Beneva Road property in Sarasota that belongs to the Sarasota County School Board.

The MSBIA has rebranded itself as the Suncoast Builders Association.

The Business Industry Institute would be responsible for moving the house to a new location.

On Feb. 28, Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Terry Connor sent a letter via email to County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, explaining that he was addressing “the proposition from the Suncoast Builders’ Association regarding the use of the Florida House as their new headquarters.

“After thorough consideration and review,” Connor wrote, “the School District has decided not to enter into a land lease agreement with the Suncoast Builders’ Association for the use of the Florida House. This decision was not made lightly but was determined based on the proposal’s alignment with our core mission and direct benefits to our students.

Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Terry Connor. Image courtesy Sarasota County Schools

“The Sarasota County School District is committed to fostering initiatives that directly contribute to the educational growth of our students,” Connor pointed out. “We believe that our resources should be utilized in ways that support this mission. Unfortunately, the intended use of the Florida House as the headquarters for the Suncoast Builders’ Association does not provide a direct educational benefit to our students nor supports the overarching goals of our District.”

Connor added, “We understand the importance of community partnerships and are always open to proposals that mutually benefit our students and the community. However, our priority remains with our students and ensuring that our resources are aligned with initiatives that directly enhance their educational experience.”

Connor was not named superintendent until June 2023, well after the discussions began in 2021 about allowing what was then the MSBIA to purchase the structure and move it.

In June 2022 Brennan W. Asplen III, Connor’s predecessor, denied a request that the County Commission had made to sublease the Florida House site to the MSBIA.

The agreement between the county and the School Board included a clause calling for the School Board to approve any sublease, except to the Florida House Institute “or another, similar, appropriate community based organization acceptable to [the School Board].”

Twice, Asplen also wrote county administrative staff to make it clear that the school district was “ardently interested in keeping the [Florida House] in its existing location.” Asplen added in a March 2, 2022 letter, “Sarasota County Schools wishes to secure ownership of the Florida House to ensure that the facility is able to maintain its profound contributions to our community, and beyond.”

On Feb. 29, Jon Mast, CEO of the Suncoast Builders Association, responded to Connor, copying Commission Chair Michael Moran, County Administrator Lewis and Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham.

“We are extremely disappointed in this decision as we believe that value truly exists for the Suncoast Builders Association and the Building Industry Institute to be able to interact with students through the proximity of the Florida House. Workforce development is one of the most important economic needs of our area and country.”

Mast added, “For students to be able to work on the Florida House, learning about green building and sustainable processes is important. In addition, we would have utilized the building as an opportunity to use our … curriculum focusing on maintenance and rehabilitation.

Jon Mast. File photo

“The value that this building represents to the future of the building community is tremendous; we believe this decision is shortsighted,” Mast continued. “We know we would have been a much better leaseholder and educator on green building than the 2 previous entities that occupied this building.”

The last leaseholder, as the News Leader has noted, was Southface Sarasota, which had absorbed the Florida House Institute.

In 2019, a 2021 county staff report explained, The Florida House Institute “entered into a strategic partnership” with the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Southface Institute “with an aligned mission, local experience, and national stature.”

In a Sept. 29, 2020 letter to the county, leaders of the Florida House Institute said they wanted to change the organization’s name to Southface Sarasota, and they wanted to assign the ownership rights of the Florida House to Southface “if or when the County’s lease with the School Board ends.”

On May 25, 2021, the county report said, county administrative personnel sent a letter to Charles C. Reith, then-president of the board of the Florida House Institute, informing him that the county would not consent to the proposals in that 2020 letter.

On its website, Southface Sarasota points out that while it “operated the Florida House for only a fraction of the green demonstration home’s history, we made a significant, lasting impact. In 2021, Suncoast Technical College students logged 2,500 hours learning green trade skills with us. We hosted thousands of community volunteer hours, hundreds of educational tours, a lecture series, a new podcast, and multiple partner showcase events. In partnership with Transition Sarasota, Southface Sarasota donated more than 500 pounds of organic produce from our garden to the Church of the Palms food pantry too!”

A years-long collaboration

As Commissioner Moran pointed out during a board discussion on May 18, 2021, although the Sarasota County School Board owns the Beneva Road site of the Florida House, the county had a lease for the property that would end in 2027.

That lease dated to July 11, 2007, according to the 2021 board report cited above. The goal of the lease, the report said, was to allow for “an educational example of a house (Florida House Building) that would demonstrate the benefits of residential sustainability of energy, water conservation and water quality.”

Additionally, the report pointed out, on July 10, 2012, the county entered into a sublease with the Florida House Foundation of Sarasota Inc. to carry out those goals and objectives. That sublease ended on July 9, 2022, as the News Leader also has reported.

This is the Southface Sarasota Facebook post about the closing of the Florida House. Image from Facebook

In September 2022, the School Board voted 3-2 to provide formal notice to the county that it would terminate its lease of the Beneva Road property to the county as of September 2023.

On Sept. 12, 2023, Commissioner Moran made a formal motion that directed County Administrator Lewis to work with the Sarasota County School Board and what was then the Manatee-Sarasota Business Industry Association “to transfer ownership interest of the Florida House to the MSBIA or any other non-profit entity of their choosing.” The motion won unanimous support.

A progression of dates

On Feb. 28, Assistant County Administrator Cunningham wrote Mast of the Suncoast Builders Association, providing him a copy of the commission agenda for the March 5 meeting, pointing out that the Florida House sale was No. 8 on the Consent Agenda.

Cunningham added, “I appreciate your patience and you working with us to get all the documents in the requested format to make this happen.”

Then, on Feb. 29, Mast responded to Cunningham and copied the county commissioners: “I was made aware of [the Feb. 28 letter] from the superintendent via email and believe this decision is shortsighted.”

Mast added, “We have appreciated the confidence of the Commission on our mission for the Florida House. I understand that this item is slated for Consent on Tuesday and will respond back to you what our next steps will be.”

The public records that the News Leader received on March 7 showed that, in a March 1 email to Cunningham, Mast made the formal request to remove the item from the March 5 agenda.

Prior to receiving the public records, the News Leader sought a statement from Mast. He did not respond to the publication’s requests.

On Dec. 11, 2023, the News Leader also learned through its public records request, county staff had sent Mast a copy of the bill of sale for the Florida House. He returned it, signed, on Dec. 28, 2023, an email shows.

The Building Industry Institute was to pay the county $10 for the Florida House. However, a county staff memo included in the agenda packet for the March 5 item said, “The [Building Industry] Institute agrees to maintain an Umbrella Policy … with limits not less than $1,000,000 [per] occurrence and in the aggregate to cover any and all claims, actions, damages, fees, fines, penalties, defense costs arising from the obligations contained in this Bill of Sale. The Institute agrees to endorse the County as additional insured on the [umbrella] Policy on a primary and non-contributory basis.”

This is a copy of the main page of the Certificate of Liability Insurance for the Florida House transaction. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Originally, as shown in the public records that the News Leader received this week, county staff had planned for the sale of the Florida House to be on the County Commission’s Jan. 10 agenda. However, problems regarding that umbrella insurance policy resulted in delays.

On Dec. 28, 2023, Assistant County Attorney Stephen Shaw sent an email to Wendy Mastripolito, agenda coordinator and executive assistant on county staff, pointing out of the proposed sale, “This is a board priority that we are trying to make the January 10th Board meeting.”

In an email the same day, Mast of Suncoast Builders wrote Justin Sago, manager of the county’s Property Management Division, explaining that he was aware that a certificate of insurance was “required for the bill of sale but since I have not been asked previously to provide this policy, it may take a few days for our insurance company to get it bound.”

Mast also inquired about the effective date of the coverage.

Shaw responded to Mast, noting that the effective date would be Jan. 10, as planned at that time.

Later emails show that the decision was made to move the Florida House sale to the Jan. 30 agenda.

In a Jan. 17 email to Mast, Assistant County Administrator Cunningham wrote that he was providing Mast “a friendly reminder that the deadline for keeping the Florida House on the 1/30/24 agenda” was Jan. 18. “The County is still awaiting the [Certificate of Insurance] and, signed and witnessed Bill of Sale. Otherwise,” Cunningham wrote, “the item will be pushed out to the 2/21/24 [commission meeting].”

On Jan. 20, Mast replied, “Understood.”

Then Mast pointed out, “It has been challenging to get the umbrella policy required to make this agreement complete. I have been assured we are through underwriting and should have a document next week.”

On Jan. 30, via email, Cunningham informed Jared Clark, a commercial insurance adviser with the Brown & Brown firm — working out of a University Park office — that the Certificate of Insurance “that was submitted was rejected, as Sarasota County, a political subdivision of the State of Florida should be listed as the additional insured; not the School Board.”

(Brown & Brown is a member of the Suncoast Building Association, the News Leader learned through an online search.)

Then a Feb. 13 email from Cunningham to Mast and Clark informed them that the sale had been rescheduled to the March 5 commission meeting.