SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. — In a move that surprised even some members of the public, the majority of Sarasota County's five-member public school board voted against hiring a Michigan-based consultant with ties to Hillsdale College, the Christian conservative college widely criticized for teaching conservative views of American history.
In the final vote, Board Chair Bridget Ziegler and Kimberly Rose voted in favor of hiring Vermilion Education to conduct a three-month, $28,000 "district improvement study." However, members Tom Edwards, Tim Enos and Robyn Marinelli voted against the move, taking the proposed contract off the table for right now at least.
"I've been completely blindsided by this whole Vermilion process," said Edwards, the board's sole Democrat who, up until Tuesday, had been the board's only vocal critic of the consultant and how a contract appeared to get fast-tracked by Board Chair Bridget Ziegler.
But in the end, the board's newest members, Enos and Marinelli, also expressed their concerns about moving forward with Vermilion without time to properly vet the company.
"This is not political for me," said Enos. "This is not right or left, Hillsdale or no Hillsdale. This is a three-month-old company that doesn't have the experience doing this."
Vermilion Education is a newly formed company created in December, according to Michigan business records. Its founder and President is Jordan Adams, a former graduate and civics education specialist at Hillsdale College, the same private Christian college that teaches a "classical education" curriculum Governor Ron DeSantis said he wants to emulate at the publicly funded New College in Sarasota.
But critics fear Vermilion's ties to Hillsdale and its founder's history, which also includes examining Florida's math textbooks for prohibited topics, including critical race theory, makes him unqualified to examine district policies without bias.
Under the proposed contract, Vermilion would have spent three months examining more than a dozen areas and materials in the district, including textbooks, library books, parent transparency and guidance counseling policies. The proposed services also included three three-day site visits to schools to review instruction.
"Politics has no place in public schools,” said Sarasota County high school student Chloe Boggs who helped organize a rally before Tuesday's board vote. "There should be no political agenda through our school board and it's scary that there is."
Over a public comment period that lasted about four hours, more than 70 citizens, activists and other students also expressed similar concerns.
"Where is Vermilion’s proven success in public school districts?" asked one resident.
"It is irresponsible to bring in a consultant with so little experience," said another.
A small handful of people spoke in favor of moving forward with the contract.
"Approve the contract with Vermilion and let’s audit the policies of our schools," said one young commenter.
The overwhelming majority of citizens questioned the board's intent and its chairwoman's personal agenda in bringing Vermilion Education to the table. The Board's chair, Bridget Ziegler, is an original Moms for Liberty founder and wife of Florida's GOP Chairman Christian Ziegler.
Ziegler seemed to fast-track a contract with Vermilion after casually bringing up the idea of hiring Vermilion as a consultant during a workshop last month. She never disclosed its founder's ties to Hillsdale College or his history of reviewing math textbooks for the state education department.
At the time, Ziegler told reporter Katie LaGrone that any discussions with the company were in the "early stages." But just two weeks later, two separate proposed contracts with Vermilion appeared on the board's agenda for approval.
One contract focused on a district-wide improvement study, while the other was for a wide range of consulting services that included Vermilion weighing in on district curriculum and even hiring decisions which, statutorily, are considered day-to-day operations and under the governance of the superintendent and his/her staff, not a school board.
Then, without any notice to the public, Vermilion's founder appeared over Zoom for a brief presentation during a workshop the morning of that scheduled vote earlier this month. But his appearance was never included on the agenda and no notice was provided to the public.
Board member Edwards and about 80 community members who showed up to the board meeting that evening questioned the process and accused Ziegler of being "sneaky" and not transparent.
Ziegler maintained that she followed all protocols but agreed to delay the vote until this past Tuesday evening. Days before Tuesday's meeting, the new agenda showed Vermilion's proposed contracts were reduced to just one contract focused only on a district-wide improvement study and not additional consulting services.
Still, the public voiced their concerns.
"It is irresponsible to bring in a consultant with so little experience," said one resident Tuesday evening.
"We see right through this proposal for the consultancy," said another.
Ziegler believed Vermilion offered the district and the board an opportunity in "keeping us away from the fire" as districts work to align with unprecedented new state requirements and laws for school districts and classrooms.
In a board discussion just before the vote, Ziegler emphasized that Vermilion's district-wide study would not impact the district's curriculum.
But in the end, the majority of Sarasota's school board wasn't convinced moving forward with Vermilion was in the best interest of everyone.
Moments after the final vote, board member Robyn Marinelli said she could consider hiring Vermilion in the future.
"I'm not closing the door to it," she said. "I just think we need more information."
Vermilion's founder, Jordan Adams, has not responded to our multiple emails and phone calls over the past month.