Twenty months into his four-year term on the school board, Brian Barefoot said the experience so far has left him disappointed, discouraged and worried.
The John’s Island resident should also feel more than a little unrecognized, given the knowledge, professionalism and leadership he brought to what was an underperforming school district and a board that, prior to his arrival, was too often in chaos.
As the 79-year-old former mayor of Indian River Shores has said repeatedly, “I don’t need to do this. Its impressive business, educational, civic and philanthropic credentials speak for themselves. His legacy is assured.
Barefoot, however, chose to serve on the school board because he cared deeply about our community and believed our children deserved better than a mediocre education.
“I was optimistic,” Barefoot said. “I knew how to run an organization. I knew how a council was supposed to work. I knew how to chair a meeting. I thought I could make a difference.
Having easily won the election in August 2020 and was elected Chairman of the Board of Trustees in November, Barefoot was especially keen to support the efforts of new Superintendent of Schools David Moore, a rising star whose reputation as an innovator statewide made him the ideal choice to take on the challenges faced by our district.
“I really like Moore,” Barefoot said, “and I thought his vision and goals were where we needed to go.”
In mid-March 2020, however, the coronavirus arrived and Moore had to reconfigure his plan to deal with a global pandemic.
No one knew then how COVID-19 would impact the district — or how it would open the door to the politicization of public education and spawn a pair of small but vocal fringe groups that thrive on the same polarization that continues to divide. America.
“We were making progress as a district, and then COVID hit, and that’s when the cultural and political noise started to come in,” Barefoot said, referring to the birth of local Moms groups. For Liberty and We The People, both fiercely opposed. mandatory masking of students at school.
“From then on it seemed like that was all we were dealing with, and it has gone downhill ever since,” he added. “We could never talk about improving education and student outcomes. Everything was political, even in 2021, when the Delta variant was everywhere.
“It was all about the culture wars.”
And Barefoot, who refused to be intimidated by noise, was seen by these groups as an enemy, simply because he refused to comply with their demands.
For much of the past two school years, the disrespect for a man of his stature, esteem and accomplishments has been shameful, below the dignity of our community.
Not only has Barefoot been the victim of often vile verbal attacks on social media – where you can find unflattering photographs posted by unscrupulous critics in a juvenile attempt to poke fun at him – but the former president of Babson College has also been the target of cyber threats from pseudo-tough bullies.
It was publicly “censored” by the local Republican executive committee, which was hijacked by the same fringe groups that wreaked havoc at school board meetings, where disruptive and sometimes hostile behavior from the public prompted the district to hire a team of sheriff’s deputies to provide security.
He was wrongfully accused of breaking the law during the pandemic when, as chairman of the board of trustees, he supported a temporary mask mandate at the school that violated a Department of Health emergency order. state health too vague to enforce prohibiting such action.
If that wasn’t enough, school board member Jackie Rosario told this newspaper earlier this year that she was “disappointed” with the outcome of a sheriff’s office investigation into a criminal complaint that could have resulted in Barefoot , along with three other board members. and the superintendent, being arrested.
For those who don’t remember: the investigation revealed that several school library books cited by Moms For Liberty members were not pornographic and did not violate Florida law, much to the dismay of the group.
This concocted controversy — most of the books in question had never been verified — followed the mask debate, as well as the fabricated outrage of mothers over the district’s now-abandoned plan to hire an equity director and, more later unsubstantiated claims that critical race theory was being taught in our schools.
The most recent storm was sparked by Rosario, who fully embraces the moms group, and swirled around the district’s LGBTQ+ administrative resource guide, which, after unnecessarily long discussion, required minor rewording.
It was the latest example of the school board being forced to spend countless hours on culture war issues that have no direct impact on improving education.
“I am very disappointed with the reluctance of people who disagree with the majority of the board and the superintendent to try to work with us, opting instead to resort to threats and intimidation,” said Barefoot.
“These groups may have been well-intentioned when they started, and I’m all for parental rights,” he continued. “Parents should participate in the education of their children. But do it respectfully. That’s not what happened.
“When these people don’t get what they want, they go on the attack,” he added. “They refuse to accept that they’re not the majority — that they don’t speak for most parents in this county — and they have no interest in finding common ground.
“They believe they’re right and you’re wrong, and if you don’t give them exactly what they want, they’re going to come after you.”
Barefoot said he could better understand opposition tenacity and poisonous rhetoric if the district, which operates in a Republican-dominated county, pursued a progressive agenda.
“But it’s not,” he said. “We don’t do anything that anyone should consider progressive. The problem is that what is happening here – with these groups – is not conservative. It’s ultra-conservative.
“Where are all the moderates?”
Barefoot said the board’s priorities should be to improve student outcomes in literacy and math, “but we never get into those topics because we have a school board member who aligns with those groups and she prefers to talk about cultural issues and challenge the superintendent’s authority.”
Clearly, he singled out Rosario, who routinely finds himself on the losing side of most board 4-1 votes.
His insistence on putting divisive cultural issues on the agenda has bogged down many workshops and board meetings, and Barefoot said he has “no more tolerance for such distractions.”
He fears that these board meetings, where the tone during public comments is often combative and spectators hold up derogatory signs, are setting a bad example for our children.
“It’s very discouraging,” he said. “With all this negativity and all the distractions, I sometimes wonder why anyone would want to run for the school board.”
Dr. Gene Posca, in fact, was the only candidate for the District 1 seat vacated by Mara Schiff, who chose not to seek a second term. Only two candidates — Board Chair Teri Barenborg and Moms-approved underdog Thomas Kenny — entered the District 4 race.
In District 2, however, Rosario is challenged by three political newcomers: LaDonna Corbin, Cynthia Gibbs and Josh Post.
Barefoot said his vision of what might be possible to achieve over the next two years will be decided by the next election.
“Right now I’m worried,” he said. “If we elect people who don’t want to work together, I’m going to go from disappointed and discouraged to ‘Am I wasting my time?'”
Barefoot said he’s also concerned about the impact of the election on Moore’s future here, particularly if mom-endorsed candidates take over the board.
“If I was him and the election goes the wrong way, I’d have my resume there,” Barefoot said. “To have to endure personal attacks from these people – just for doing your job well – I wouldn’t blame him at all if he left.”
When he ran for his seat on the District 5 school board, Barefoot said he planned to serve only one term. It seems nothing has changed.
“I sit on several boards and get some satisfaction out of it because I see the benefits of the time I invest,” Barefoot said. “On this board? I get no satisfaction.