- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2022

Florida’s Sarasota County School Board has voted to hire a company that critics blame for a “cultural sensitivity training” program for faculty it canceled two years ago after the facilitator told teachers to publicly shame each other for perceived racial intolerance.

A divided school board in February approved a $362,446 agreement with Solution Tree after an earlier contract to train educators in “culturally and linguistically responsive teaching and learning” ended when presenter Sharroky Hollie’s first video workshop outraged teachers and the community leaders.

Under pressure, Superintendent Brennan Asplen removed the presenter in August for being a “BLM activist.”

The Sarasota County School Board voted 3-2 to approve the new contract with Solution Tree Inc. after hearing from Mr. Asplen and his staff. The new contract was more than three times Mr. Hollie’s  $115,000 contract.

Solution Tree told The Washington Times in an email that Mr. Hollie is an independent contractor that schools book directly to present three books he’s co-authored with the company, not an employee.

“His presenting again in Sarasota is totally up to the school corporation,” said Jeffrey C. Jones, Solution Tree‘s CEO. “We don’t send people in they do not request or do not approve. We try to match speakers with needs.”

A spokesperson for the Sarasota County Schools told The Times in an email that the agreement does not resume any prior services or programming related to “culturally and linguistically responsive teaching and learning.”

The school spokesperson added that the new contract is separate and unrelated to the earlier one with Mr. Hollie, noting that critics had conflated the two.  

The controversy erupted after an August 2020 livestream presentation in which Mr. Hollie told faculty and staff to treat racially insensitive teachers similar to the treatment meted out to Amy Cooper, a White woman who was widely ridiculed and ostracized after a viral social media video showed her calling the police on a Black man who confronted her about her unleashed dog in a New York City park.

“Look for the Amy Coopers in Sarasota, and I want you to call them to the carpet,” Mr. Hollie said. “We will not get to the label of cultural responsiveness that we need to if you are not willing to call out the Amy Coopers. These are the people walking around saying ‘I’m not a racist, I love all people,’ but when the time comes they practice insensitivity.”

Four days after the workshop, Florida Sen. Joe Gruters, Sarasota Republican, posted a note about the workshop on Facebook from an anonymous teacher who had attended.

“The speaker spent 30 minutes explaining BLM (Black Lives Matter) and how all whites are racist,” the teacher said in the note.

The school superintendent responded by canceling the $115,000 contract and canceling the remaining six workshops.

At a pitched school board meeting on Feb. 15, Mr. Asplen persuaded enough school board members to give Solution Tree a bigger contract than it had given Mr. Hollie.

“Beyond the controversy, you need this in this district,” Mr. Asplen said. “Whether you fire me tonight or not, or whatever you want to do, you need this in this district to move forward and I highly recommend that you move forward with this.”

Tom Edwards, school board vice chair, said calling the Solution Tree training a controversy “adds to the divisiveness.”

“I’m gonna support it,” Mr. Edwards said, adding of Mr. Asplen that the rest of the board should “trust him.

Not everyone who attended the meeting agreed.

Melissa Loconte, a parent in the district, said Mr. Hollie is a “BLM activist.”

“To remind everyone, this school board forced teachers to listen to Dr. Hollie tell them that they were innately racist,” Ms. Loconte said during public comments. “Parents were outraged.”

Noting that the contract was triple the price of the one for Mr. Hollie, she told the board: “This adds to distrust and the view that you are fiscally irresponsible.”

Board member Karen Rose, who voted against the new contract, said she was trained as a teacher and principal to avoid hot-button material that raises “trust issues” among its target audience.

“In the long run, I cannot say that I absolutely would not support it,” Mrs. Rose said. “But as it stands right now, it’s not something I can support or will because of the immediate controversy it initiated.”

Parental rights advocates said they will encourage families in the school district to resist any future trainings.

“Parents and community members have every right to ask questions about the source of the funding and the justification for the services,” said Virginia Gentles, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. “Parents should also demand accountability measures to ensure contracts like this support students’ academic instruction, rather than foster ideological divisions.”

Sheri Few, president of U.S. Parents Involved in Education, said federal COVID-19 relief funding puts pressure on school districts like Sarasota to advance equity and inclusion in accordance with the Biden administration’s education policies.

“I am not surprised to see the Sarasota School District double-down on their commitment to culturally responsive teaching, which is a common vehicle to teach the tenets of critical race theory,” Ms. Few said. “Parents in Sarasota County need to overturn their school board and elect members who will protect children from this garbage and fire the superintendent.”

The nonprofit Parents Defending Education, a parental rights group that has posted documents from Hollie and the school board online, said it will continue to keep parents informed.

“What exactly is this money being used for? At a time when teachers reach into their own pockets for classroom supplies and students nationwide are experiencing profound learning loss, spending $362,000 on a controversial ‘cultural sensitivity training’ makes absolutely no sense,” said Erika Sanzi, the group’s director of outreach.

Correction: The Sarasota County School Board‘s contract with Solution Tree is new. Earlier versions of this story should have reported that the previous agreement was with an independent contractor, not Solution Tree.  

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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