Florida’s Sarasota County School Board will resume a costly “cultural sensitivity training” program for faculty that it canceled two years ago after the facilitator told teachers to publicly shame each other for perceived racial intolerance.

A divided school board this month approved a $362,446 agreement to rehire Solution Tree executive director Sharroky Hollie, whose earlier contract to train educators in “culturally and linguistically responsive teaching and learning” ended when his first video workshop outraged teachers and community leaders.

Under pressure, Superintendent Brennan Asplen removed him in August for being a “BLM activist.”

The Sarasota County School Board voted 3-2 to approve the new contract with Solution Tree Inc. after hearing from Mr. Asplen and his staff. The new contract was more than three times the original $115,000 contract.

The controversy erupted after an August 2020 livestream presentation in which Mr. Hollie told faculty and staff to treat racially insensitive teachers similar to the treatment meted out to Amy Cooper, a White woman who was widely ridiculed and ostracized after a viral social media video showed her calling the police on a Black man who confronted her about her unleashed dog in a New York City park.

“Look for the Amy Coopers in Sarasota, and I want you to call them to the carpet,” Mr. Hollie said. “We will not get to the label of cultural responsiveness that we need to if you are not willing to call out the Amy Coopers. These are the people walking around saying ‘I’m not a racist, I love all people,’ but when the time comes they practice insensitivity.”

Four days after the workshop, Florida Sen. Joe Gruters, Sarasota Republican, posted a note about the workshop on Facebook from an anonymous teacher who had attended.

“The speaker spent 30 minutes explaining BLM (Black Lives Matter) and how all whites are racist,” the teacher said in the note.

The school superintendent responded by canceling the $115,000 contract and canceling the remaining six workshops.

At a pitched school board meeting on Feb. 15, Mr. Asplen persuaded enough school board members to rehire Mr. Hollie for a bigger contract. 

“Beyond the controversy, you need this in this district,” Mr. Asplen said. “Whether you fire me tonight or not, or whatever you want to do, you need this in this district to move forward and I highly recommend that you move forward with this.”

Tom Edwards, school board vice chair, said calling it a controversy “adds to the divisiveness.”

“I’m gonna support it,” Mr. Edwards said, adding of Mr. Asplen that the rest of the board should “trust him.

Not everyone who attended the meeting agreed.

Melissa Loconte, a parent in the district, said Mr. Hollie is a “BLM activist.”

“To remind everyone, this school board forced teachers to listen to Dr. Hollie tell them that they were innately racist,” Ms. Loconte said during public comments. “Parents were outraged.”

Noting that the cost of Hollie’s training had tripled in price, she told the board: “This adds to distrust and the view that you are fiscally irresponsible.”

Board member Karen Rose, who voted against the new contract, said she was trained as a teacher and principal to avoid hot-button material that raises “trust issues” among its target audience.

“In the long run, I cannot say that I absolutely would not support it,” Mrs. Rose said. “But as it stands right now, it’s not something I can support or will because of the immediate controversy it initiated.”

The Sarasota County Schools declined to comment on the vote for this report, saying the meeting spoke for itself.

Solution Tree did not respond to a request for comment.

Parental rights advocates said they will encourage families in the school district to continue resisting the training.

“Parents and community members have every right to ask questions about the source of the funding and the justification for the services,” said Virginia Gentles, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. “Parents should also demand accountability measures to ensure contracts like this support students’ academic instruction, rather than foster ideological divisions.”

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