BROWARD COUNTY, Fla. — A Florida school board continues to take heat over a proposed new contract with a consultant who has little experience advising boards but years of experience working for Hillsdale College, a religious school known for pushing conservative views in the classroom.
Investigative reporter Katie LaGrone revealed new details about the contract and why it's raising eyebrows among veteran superintendents.
It's a proposed new contract that prompted one school board member to speak up and dozens upon dozens of local citizens to speak out recently during a Sarasota County school board meeting.
"This feels like a very secret scheme," alleged school board member Tim Edwards about the board's proposed new contract with Vermilion Education, a new consulting company whose founder is linked to Hillsdale College, a Christian conservative College in Hillsdale, Michigan.
"There is no room for Vermilion in our schools," said a member of the public during the four-hour-long public comment section of the meeting, which drew overwhelming opposition to the proposed contract.
"You don't have the right to shove the Hillsdale curriculum down the throats of public school students," Lisa Schurr, founder of the advocacy group Support Our Schools, said.
But while new documents posted to the board's website show, as of Thursday, the Sarasota County school board is backtracking from hiring Vermilion Education to consult them on a wide range of services. A draft contract showed the board is still poised to vote on paying Vermilion $28,000 over the next three months to conduct a "District Improvement Study."
According to the contract, the study would be a review of more than a dozen district areas and materials, including textbooks and library books, student surveys, parent access and guidance counseling policies. The review would also include a three-day visit to three separate schools in the county for a "sample of instruction."
It may sound like typical services from an experienced auditor, only Vermilion Education isn't an auditor, nor is it experienced.
Instead, the company is just three months old and is led by Jordan Adams, a graduate and former civics education specialist at Hillsdale College.
Hillsdale is the same college Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has openly admitted he wants to replicate at Florida's publicly funded New College, also located in Sarasota.
During a visit to Hillsdale College last week, DeSantis boasted about New College's conservative transformation under his leadership.
"We'll be like a little Hillsdale down in Florida. Can you imagine how good that would be?" DeSantis chuckled to the crowd.
But politics aside, current and former Florida school district superintendents we spoke with explained how unusual it is for any school board to go out on its own and hire a consultant without a recommendation from its superintendent first, even an interim superintendent like Sarasota's current leadership.
"It's something I've never heard of before," explained Kurt Browning, current Pasco County superintendent and former President of Florida's superintendent association.
"Why? Because the superintendent deals with the day-to-day operations of the school district. The school board does not. It's that simple," Browning explained. "It would send a loud message to the superintendent that they don't value my opinion, and they don't trust my employees to get the work done."
According to state law, school boards adopt district policies and programs and approve the budget to fund them, while superintendents and district staff handle the details and day-to-day operations of a school district.
“They stay in their lane. I stay in my lane. They don't cross," Browning said.
"It's unheard of," explained former Orange County School Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins.
Jenkins retired from the district last year after a decade as the Orange County schools' top boss.
But in a state where education has become a political minefield, classrooms have turned into cultural battlefields, and school boards are viewed as partisan foot soldiers, Jenkins said it wouldn't surprise her if school board consultants become Florida's next public school trend.
"What is going on in Florida now is very new," Jenkins said. "It's just a different time, and so what seems normally like a usurping of the superintendent's responsibility, or even an abdicating of the school board's responsibility, has to be seen in a different light because of the current culture in Florida," she explained.
"Boards are concerned about being removed from office and teachers have to be concerned, and superintendents and principals have to be concerned about their licenses," she said.
The idea of hiring Vermilion as a school board consultant was first introduced during a board workshop a few weeks ago by Sarasota County School Board Chair Bridget Ziegler, an original Moms for Liberty founder and wife of Florida's GOP chairman.
At the time, Ziegler told us she had heard about Vermilion through "education circles" but wouldn't elaborate. She also explained her idea to hire Vermilion was very new and in the early stages.
"I think it would be an opportunity for a consultant to help us with certain things when it comes to keeping us away from the fire," Ziegler explained to fellow board members when she brought up the idea at the end of the workshop last month.
But two weeks later and without any meaningful board discussion, two separate draft contracts appeared on the board's agenda for a vote on April 4. During a board workshop meeting that morning, Vermilion's founder, Jordan Adams, appeared over Zoom for a brief presentation. Neither his appearance nor his presentation was ever disclosed on the agenda.
While Ziegler agreed to delay the vote to the board's next meeting, her interest in hiring Vermilion Education continues to fuel questions over whether she's trying to push Christian conservative education policies into publicly funded classrooms. One of the two draft contracts called for Vermilion to offer a wide range of additional consulting services that included advising the board of curriculum and being involved in the district's hiring practices of teachers and administrative positions.
However, that contract is not part of the board's next agenda. Instead, the only Vermilion contract listed is for the districtwide study, which, critics fear, could still be a move to push conservative Christian values into publicly funded classrooms.
When asked about concerns about a school board hiring a consultant with a history of pushing conservative education, Jenkins had this to say:
"The current statutes that have been put in place and current direction from the Department of Education seems to be extremely conservative," Jenkins replied. "So if you need a consultant, perhaps someone with an extremely liberal background is not going to help keep you out of trouble under the current circumstances."
Sarasota's school board is set to vote on the Vermilion contract during Tuesday's board meeting.