SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - Monday, the Sarasota County School District announced a mutual separation agreement has been signed by Superintendent Todd Bowden.
If approved by the School Board, Bowden will resign at the end of the year. He has requested to be placed on paid administrative leave until then, with 20 weeks of severance pay and $65,000 in attorney reimbursement fees.
In response, community members, the teachers union and a former administrator are speaking up about the offer.
A suggestion posted outside of the Sarasota Classified Teacher’s Association reflects an idea most seem to agree on. It said, “Let’s get back to educating our kids.”
“Eventually we’ll get to where we need to be, where we used to be," said Sarasota Classified Teacher’s Association President, Pat Gardner. "It might take some time. Nothing changes in one day.”
But the union said their teachers are happy and hopeful that Dr. Bowden’s resignation offer is the first step in the right direction.
“You didn’t see any changes in schools with all this crazy stuff going on," Gardner said. "They kept working and they weren’t happy about it, because I would get a lot of emails about it, but they just kept working, because that’s what they do.”
For those directly impacted by the alleged harassment, it’s a first step towards healing.
“It’s a good day, but it’s also a very sad day, because people like Dr. Ruiz and other members of this district have had to endure such heartache to get here," said Michele Leach-Pachinger, an attorney representing Dr. Lyna Jimenez-Ruiz.
With her attorney by her side, Dr. Lyna Jimenez-Ruiz told her own story of sexual harassment and retaliation.
It begins four years ago, when she was Dr. Bowden’s administrative assistant.
“I was fearful," Dr. Ruiz said. "And as much as they would say, well why don’t you come forward? All I kept on saying is well, it would be career suicide.”
In another pending lawsuit filed against the school district, Dr. Ruiz said Bowden made numerous inappropriate comments while she worked for him. The most egregious, she said, was during a conference in July of 2015.
Dr. Ruiz alleges Bowden tried numerous times to convince her to take shots of alcohol, then continually insisted on walking her back to her villa.
“Upon arrival to the villa, he looked at me and he asked me if I was gonna invite him in and I said no and he continued asking why and I said, ‘I’m not a home wrecker,’" Dr. Ruiz explained.
Dr. Ruiz said when Bowden found out that she had told colleagues about the encounter, she was transferred to Booker High School. Then Bowden became superintendent, despite Dr. Ruiz’s pleas to the school board.
“That was the most painful... all of it was painful, but the fact that they dismissed us," Dr. Ruiz explained. "Years ago, when three of us came forward and told the School Boardmembers listen, this is not the guy for this position.”
Last July, Dr. Ruiz was fired. Now, though relieved by the news that Dr. Bowden is offering to resign, she said a lot of heartache could have been avoided.
“That felt like a knife in my gut," she said.
“This toxic, “boys club” environment started with Todd Bowden," said her attorney, Leach-Pachinger. "And it needs to stop and the attention needs to be directed back to the children of the District, instead of all the litigation and harassment.”
For now, District staff said Dr. Bowden is not to providing any further comment, but did send the following statement from him:
“For three years I have had the privilege of serving Sarasota County schools as superintendent. I have witnessed excellence among our teachers, dedication between our principals, care from our staff and innovative approaches to learning by our administrators. Because of their efforts, our students have excelled academically and are well-positioned to become caring and informed citizens of the world. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve so many, and I hope the next superintendent will further propel this outstanding school district to excel even more. Personally, my wife and I plan to remain in the area where our two children will continue their education in Sarasota County schools.”
School Boardmembers will decide if they will approve the agreement during the November 19 meeting.