SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - At a special meeting of the School Board on Tuesday, board members voted to give superintendent Dr. Todd Bowden 30-day notice before a December 10th meeting where they will decide if any action, including a reprimand, suspension without pay or termination, will be taken against him.
WATCH THIS ABC7 EXCLUSIVE: Sarasota Superintendent Todd Bowden shares his perspective following special board meeting
In a 118-page report Sproat Workplace Investigations, investigators concluded Dr. Todd Bowden did not take prompt or appropriate steps to investigate Cheraina Bonner’s claims that she had been sexually harassed by COO and assistant superintendent Jeffrey Maultsby. In fact, investigators say once Bonner reported her boss to Bowden, Bowden went right to Maultsby and told him what she said.
The report found Bowden “did not take prompt or appropriate steps to investigate Bonner’s claims” of sexual harassment, a hostile work environment, retaliation and threatening behavior.
Bowden has long maintained that he would address his actions then, having previously asserted that he does not believe his actions warrant his removal from his position.
“I do not believe that once we’ve had a chance to examine the report and receive my rebuttal, that I’ve done anything that warrants the same response that Mr. Maultsby received, but ultimately that’s a decision that’s left up to the board," Bowden said. “There are quite a few things in that report that I take exception to, so I look forward to having the opportunity to interact with the Board on November 5th."
Tuesday, Bowden’s attorney addressed the School Board, first going over an offer from Bowden to step down from his position if the School Board agrees to give him a new role as the Executive Director of Facilities, Planning and Construction with an annual salary of $175,000.
The agreement also calls for:
- Bowden to be placed on paid administrative leave through the end of the year
- Be “terminated” at the end of the year, receiving any pay and benefits from that termination
- Beginning his new role on January 15, 2020 and receiving 20 weeks of severance pay
- Be reimbursed $57,623.11 in attorney fees
- That his new role will continue through June 30, 2030 and that he “may not be suspended, with or without pay, or his employment terminated, absent ‘good cause’”
- The agreement also says his new role cannot be eliminated by the board unless he’s given a new position at the same pay rate and under the same conditions and that the number of days he works and is paid for cannot be reduced
You can read the agreement below:
Board member Bridget Ziegler was moved to tears as she called his proposal disgusting.
“In order for this district to heal, for this community to continue to support our schools with a mission of educating all of our students, I am so disgusted that this proposal was brought forward," Ziegler said to the crowd.
Bowden’s attorney then addressed the allegations against the superintendent, often to “boos” from the crowd, claiming Bonner “flip-flopped” on some issues and presented a thick binder of their own findings to the board, claiming that the third party’s investigation was faulty and inaccurate.
“Your investigator does not tell you what she believed Dr. Bowden knew,” Bowden’s attorney said to the Board.
The superintendent is defending his handling of the sexual harassment allegations, insisting that during his initial meeting with Bonner she made no mention of sexual harassment and said she just wanted the texts from Maultsby to stop. But his claims weren’t enough to convince the community in the room.
“I see the angst, it’s got to stop,” said one member of the public.
“It’s very arrogant of you to sit there and hold us hostage," said another.
Another called Bowden a pig before being escorted out.
“Right now, like someone said, confidence is gone,” said another member of the community.
“It is a combination of evidence and case, after case that is so significant,” said a former employee of the School District.
An emotional Bonner lost her patience with the School Board early in the meeting. She called out from the crowd, specifically yelling to board member Caroline Zucker, who she said she used to respect until Zucker allegedly lied under oath.
Dozens of citizens spoke at the board meeting, almost all universally speaking out against Bowden keeping his position with the exception of his wife, who spoke last and said her husband has been a target from day one.
Board members then took turns speaking.
Ziegler and board member Eric Robinson spoke out against Bowden, focusing on his lack of action taken and the missteps highlighted by investigators, while Zucker and board member Shirley Brown spoke out in favor of Bowden, focusing on Bonner’s accusations that she was passed over for a raise and that many of the texts between her and Maultsby seemed friendly.
Chairwoman Jane Goodwin, long aligned with Bowden, said she struggled with this topic but ultimately decided to support Ziegler’s motion to give Bowden 30 days notice for a meeting on Dec. 10 at 9am where board members will decide if he will face any action, including suspension or termination.
The 30-day notice is a part of Bowden’s contract and no action can be taken before the notice is given and the 30-day period has passed. In the end, Ziegler, Robinson, Brown and Goodwin all voted to support the motion while Zucker voted against it.
Ziegler called this an emotional day. “It’s a big day, a big big day," she said. "I think someone said it well, it was a very emotional day, I think you saw that. I took this very seriously. And I am grateful that 4 out of the 5 board members supported the motion.”
“We came up with the right decision at the end of the day, but it does concern me about the process of how we got here. There was a lot of blaming of the victim that gave me great angst," Robinson added.
Bonner said she felt numb after the meeting.
“It’s a lot to take in, what happened today," she said. “It was hard to listen to them pick apart the report and go back with their investigation versus ‘the’ investigation.”
But Bonner said hearing the support of her community was amazing.
“That, if anything else, is the most amazing feeling to have a lot of support from the community," Bonner said. "Again, my bottom line is to make sure that in Sarasota County School District that this doesn’t happen to anyone.”
Sproat Workplace Investigations concluded that Bonner was sexually harassed by Maultsby and also unveiled claims that Maultsby made numerous unwelcome sexual comments about other female employees.
Maultsby started sending kissy face emojis and I love yous to Bonner in Fall of 2018. He sent her an inappropriate video on Christmas and a “snitches get stitches" threat was made in March of 2019.
Bonner told board member Caroline Zucker she was uncomfortable and the two presented her concerns to Bowden in April.
Two weeks later, investigators found Bowden had done nothing but tell Maulstby about the complaints.
Finally in May, an internal investigation begins, with Bowden as the head.
Maultsby resigned from his position the day the report was released to the public after having spent weeks on paid leave.
Read the full report below:
The question now becomes what, if any, action the School Board will take regarding the role Bowden played in this investigation. At least one board member has called on Bowden to resign.
“If you don’t take this seriously, what do you take seriously?" questioned Ziegler. "I believe that the report speaks for itself. I believe that the findings were substantial. I believe that the evidence was substantial and I believe really, the time has come for the board to not deliberate any further but to consider out what is the best plan forward for our future, for our community, for our students.”
“If I could pick the best scenario, it would be for the Superintendent to pre-preemptively resign."
But not everyone agrees.
Bowden’s deposition shows he considered Maultsby a friend and said during that initial meeting with Bonner, she repeatedly said she ‘didn’t want to make a big deal of this’ and that it was ‘stupid and immature.’
Bowden also testified that he thought the issue could be resolved informally and had to go to great lengths to get Bonner’s permission to address Maultsby’s behavior, but when Bowden did, he said the text messages stopped.
“Todd talked to Jeff when he came back from vacation, told him you need to make your relationship more business and professional and that happened," said Brown of her interpretation of the testimonies. "No more text messages after that. In fact, Raina complained that he was cold to her.”
Brown says after reading the text messages and testimonies in the report, she feels Maultsby and Bonner had a rather friendly relationship.
“I don’t believe that they weighed all the testimony correctly," said Brown. "It was clear that in the beginning, Raina did not want to file a complaint.”
On Monday, Bonner filed a complaint against the School Board saying she was retaliated against after filing sexual harassment claims against Maultsby.
The details of that lawsuit are below: