OUR POSITION: Sarasota school officials are taken to task, appropriately, for questionable action.
The Sarasota County School Board descended further into a toxic mess last week with an angry, tearful denunciation of the board and superintendent over their handling of sexual harassment charges against a high-ranking administrator.
It was a new low in a disturbing, ongoing drama that is likely eroding public confidence in the school board and the administration of Superintendent Todd Bowden.
At a regular school board meeting, a distraught Cheraina Bonner — an administrative assistant supervised by Chief Operations Officer Jeff Maultsby, now suspended — accused Bowden and the board of casting suspicions on her motivation for making harassment claims against Maultsby public.
“The question has been asked on several occasions, ‘Who guided her?’ ‘Who helped her?’ Bonner said. “As if I’m unable to decipher right from wrong or comprehend the things I have read in school board policies or researched for myself.”
She made a powerful statement. It should have stung.
Bonner first brought her complaints to the superintendent months ago but was dismayed by what she took to be inaction. Her lawyer subsequently met with Bowden and School Board member Caroline Zucker. No official action was taken immediately, but not long after, Maultsby’s contract was extended.
Bonner’s complaints were later revealed publicly in the Sarasota Herald Tribune. Later still came further details of incriminating voice and text messages — including what appeared to be a veiled threat. Only then did Bowden suspend Maultsby, pending further investigation.
The personnel action came late in the process, and it reflected poorly on the superintendent. In his defense, Bowden said the woman’s initial allegations were less direct and that he stuck to district policies in his followup. With the suspension, district officials launched a formal outside investigation.
Then, late last month, Bowden and the three-member board majority voted to expand the scope of the investigation to include claims the accuser colluded with union officials to undermine Bowden, with whom they’ve sparred repeatedly.
Bonner confirmed she did meet for lunch with two union officials on May 20, two days before she filed official charges. But she also strenuously defended her ability to act on her own behalf. A union official said, when they met, she simply told Bonner to “get a lawyer.”
What can’t be avoided viewing with the latest action is the appearance that — intended or not — what happened is a form of victim-blaming. That’s curious in the context of supposed #MeToo consciousness, but less so in the context of long-running political disagreements between majority and minority factions on the board, and between Bowden and the union.
From our viewpoint, the question isn’t “collusion” and the steps taken to bring allegations to the public. It is the substance of Bonner’s allegations and Maultsby’s behavior, and whether the superintendent responded appropriately to an employee’s complaints.
The full investigation will, hopefully, answer the first question and give us more insight into the second. We shouldn’t rush to judgment before facts of the formal investigation.
But this further reflects poorly on the individuals controlling the school district. The “collusion” question makes a real mess that much messier.