Wednesday, April 5, 2023

FL: Is Hillsdale Coming For Sarasota Schools

Sarasota has been the center of so many Florida shenanigans, and now it appears they're going to show one more way for christianist conservatives to commandeer a school district.


It is. for instance, the board with just one Democrat. That member, Tom Edwards, is a gay man who has been accused during public comments of being a "lawbreaker," a groomer, and "a threat to the innocence of our children and the rule of law in our great state." It happened once; the board chair did not stop it, but later apologized--and then failed to stop it the next time it happened, resulting in Edwards walking out of the meeting. Edwards, who just announced his intention to run for re-election to his seat, a feisty move as he is on Governor Ron DeSantis's hit list of school board members that the governor will campaign to unseat (because that's what rational, humane governors do). 

The vocal member of the public doing the attacking has alleged ties to Moms For Liberty, so perhaps she feels extra emboldened that the head of the Sarasota board is one of the founders of Moms For Liberty.

The Players

That's Bridget Ziegler. Ziegler squeaked out a victory for Sarasota School Board in 2018. Ron DeSantis thinks she's swell. And she's married to Christian Ziegler, who decided not to run for re-election to a county commissioner seat because he'll be busy helping his wife and DeSantis each run their own campaigns (that and new rules that would have made it harder for him to win).

Christian Ziegler told the Washington Post that he has been "trying for 20- and 30-year old females involved with the Republican Party, and it was a heavy lift to get that demographic. But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me." That was in October of 2021, when Ziegler's involvement had gone quiet; Tim Craig at WaPo reported that Ziegler's wife was "loosely" connected to M4L--not that she was a co-founder of this group that emerged to accomplish just what Ziegler had long searched for a tool to accomplish.

Christian Ziegler's Microtargeted Media ("We do digital and go after people on their phones") was a big player in the 2020 Florida race, on the ground for Trump and other GOP candidates. He pulled in $300K from a Trump-related PAC. He was once a Heritage Foundation Fellow. He's buddies with Corey Lewandowski. He appears to be behind the Protect Wyoming Values PAC (a Trump anti-Liz Cheney proxy), Governor Kristi Noem's election integrity website, and a bunch of other conservative Trump-backing websites. He was at Trump's January 6 rally

And in February, after had been "effectively... campaigning for the job for years," Christian Ziegler was elected Florida's GOP party chair. Meanwhile, Bridget Ziegler is helping the right-wing Leadership Institute train school board candidates.

Bridget Ziegler just acquired a right-wing majority in the 2022 elections; their first move was to force out the previous superintendent. And while a search for a replacement is under way, it appears that Ziegler is handing over major portion of the operation of the district to a consulting form wioth deep roots in the christianist right.

The Consulting Company

Tuesday afternoon, the board was supposed to vote on a contract with Vermillion Education, LLC (but that vote has been postponed until April 18). If their website seems a little sparse, that's because they have only been operating for a few months. Their promises and principles are suitably vague-- I mean, here's the whole pitch as of today--

The address Vermillion lists on the contract proposals is a single family home (1640 square feet) in a residential neighborhood of Hillsdale. And their personnel--well, so far, it looks like one guy.

That guy is Jordan Adams, fresh from Hillsdale. There's a lot of story with Hillsdale (here's a short-ish version or get into it more heavily with a whole series of articles), but the current version is a private right-wing christianist college whose head, Larry Arrn ("Teaching is our trade; also, I confess, it's our weapon"), is the same MAGA-fied guy who headed up Trump's 1776 Education thingy (and said teachers are the dumbest). They've provided a platform for a lot of school privatization and taxpayer subsidies for private christian school rhetoric from heavy hitters like Betsy DeVos and Christopher Rufo, all arguing that government shouldn't be running schools--churches should.

Hillsdale has long had a charter school initiative called the Barney Charter Schools, and more recently they've been behind the launch of many "classical" academies around the country.

Jordan Adams is a Hillsdale grad ('13), which means he was a Hillsdale student when they were launching the Barney schools, and eventually became their Associate Director of Instructional Resources. I'll let you draw your own conclusion about his fitness for the role:

“I mostly focus on the history and Latin curricula, figuring out how things are taught in a fourth-grade or eleventh-grade classroom,” said Adams. He looks forward to experimenting with more accessible resources for teachers: “When you’re a first-year teacher, you’re just trying to stay one day ahead of what you’re supposed to be teaching. You don’t have time to sit down and read a long text about teaching. But maybe if there’s a short video that is clearly titled and easy to access, you might conceivably watch it while you’re making dinner.”

If only there were a place to go where you could study teaching so that you knew what you were doing on more than a day by day basis. Adams's original undergrad plan was to work at a think tank, then he went to grad school for a Masters of Humanities. One more educational amateur rediscovering the wheel. But apparently reinvented it well enough to move up to interim director of curriculum for the Hillsdale College K-12 Education Office, a job he was holding back in October of 2022.

But he's not entirely new to Florida--in fact, Adams was part of the crew that screened the math textbooks that DeSantis accused of being too indoctrinatey

Adams is no longer listed in any current capacity as employed by Hillsdale, though there is no peep about his departure. Not sure what we can make of that. 

The Contracts

So what exactly does Ziegler want to sign this fledgling company to do? The two recent contract proposals (the ones that were going to be approved today) aren't super-specific. One consulting contract for a district improvement study lists a lot of the how, but the what is mostly in subparagraph 2:

So, basically all the things that parental rights transparency don't say stuff laws are directed at.

The other proposed contract is for "board services" covers

So, basically, if Sarasota ever hires a new superintendent, that person won't have a lot to do. 

The board services contract is a mere $4,820 per month, which is pretty damn cheap for someone overseeing all the work of a school district. And all of this--reviewing programs, curriculum, overseeing hiring, checking out all contractors, and running the board's PR--all that is supposed to happen in a mere four months (commencing immediately). So this new consulting firm is going to get the whole district up and running in time for next fall. For just under $20K. Maybe Adams is not a one man consulting firm, but if not, exactly whom will he hire with that kind of money?

And he's going to be busy, because the district-wide improvement study, both research and writing, is supposed to take just sixty days. The good news for Adams is that the contract says the costs of that study are TBD. 

Also notable in the study is that Adams will report directly to Ziegler.

So does anybody know why Sarasota is considering this?

So why, anyway?

Ziegler has not responded to press requests for comment on the Vermillion contract, so coverage has focused on comments she made at the meetings.

She said during last week’s workshop that Vermilion could help staff navigate the “challenges and issues” that happen when “components of certain types are finding their way” into curriculum and programs the district uses.

“It’s an impossible burden on our staff,” she said. “I wanted to bring it forward and present it to the board...I don’t have a specific scope of work.”

WTXL has been covering the story. They couldn't get comments from Jordan Adams or "anyone from Vermillion." Ziegler told them before scooting away.  The closest thing to a clear explanation came during a board meeting, when Ziegler brought up hiring a board consultant.

"To have someone to help us with certain things when it comes to keeping us away from the fire," she said at one point. Referring to the many political flaps of the board, she added, "It's been distraction after distraction, and I don't want to continue that."

Asked by WTXL reporter Katie LaGrone how exactly she heard of Vermillion, Ziegler didn't really say. She "works in education circles" and "certainly it was brought to my attention." 

After the meeting, LaGrone asked Ziegler if she understood that given Adams and Hillsdale's history, this move "might look a certain way."

"My focus again, whether it looks that way or not, is about getting the distractions out and making sure that our instructional materials for all our students is appropriate and in line not only to the standards but to the expectation of our families." But isn't asking a rep from a notoriously right-wing outfit a bad idea? "Why is it a bad idea to even consider how can we take pieces of that that would align to our mission as a public education institution that would not imply indoctrination of anyone's ideology but get back to the core classical components of academics. I think it's worth looking into, and it sounds like the board also agrees."

How exactly was Vermillion going to do this? "This is very beginning, early discussions," Ziegler told LaGrone before scooting away.

"Frankly, " Edwards told LaGrone, "I was waiting for something like this." In talking to reporter Chris Porter, Edwards expressed other concerns.

“The public is having the same confusion I am experiencing — but then again, I am not in their inner circle,” he said about the other board members....This has not ever been workshopped. There has been no discussion by board members … no exchange of ideas. There’s been no public comment. That, to me, is not transparent,” he said.

What's actually happening?

Either Ziegler and her crew think Adams can pull off a speedy miracle, or one of a couple of other things is true:

1) None of the parties involve know what the heck they're talking about.

2) Adams already knows the answers he's supposed to come up with and he will arrive with a suitcase full of Hillsdale classical education supplies that he will "recommend" the district adopt quickly (maybe more quickly than they will hire a superintendent, who ought to be overseeing these sorts of things).

3) Hiring a consultant to implement christianist right-wing programs gives Ziegler and her crew some insulation. In other words, you reduce the "distraction" of objections to your political agenda by claiming, "Well, I didn't say that...." and waving in the general direction of your consultant.

There are mysteries to be solved. If Adams left Hillsdale in hopes of striking it rich in the consulting biz, this isn't getting it. Maybe he thinks he's on a mission from God, or maybe he's just working some kind of deep cover shtick for Hillsdale. 

Maybe this is just proof of concept in a friendly district and what we're seeing is a new model of how Hillsdale can colonize local school districts, and all those board candidates that Ziegler has traioned are taking notes. That just means Sarasota needs to buckle up and the rest of us need to pay attention. Stay tuned.

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