Bridget Ziegler was among the 30 school board candidates to earn the endorsement of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis this year.
It was a novel approach for a governor to endorse school board candidates, but one that paid off big time for conservatives who support education freedom and parental empowerment. Nationwide, many first-time candidates won election to school boards. And in Florida, all six DeSantis-endorsed candidates on the November ballot won their school board elections. For the year, 24 of the DeSantis-backed candidates were victorious.
Even though Ziegler’s election took place in August, she’s continued to play an active role in school board elections nationwide as the Leadership Institute’s director of school board programs.
She joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about her experiences on the Sarasota County School Board and how she’s leveraging what she’s learned to help others through training programs at the Leadership Institute.
Rob Bluey: Long before COVID or the current controversies in public education, you began serving on the Sarasota County School Board. It seems that for many people, school board elections were an afterthought and now all of a sudden they’ve risen to front-page news. What motivated you to get involved?
Bridget Ziegler: Way back in 2014, I had just become a new mother, we were newly married. I had an 8-month-old at the time, her name is Reagan. I worked in commercial insurance, but I was always active in a volunteer capacity for children’s advocacy issues as early as high school and on.
My husband’s very involved in politics. I followed politics. But like most people, I focused on gubernatorial and federal races. Very little at that time in my life—and I was 31—did I really look and focus on local politics, which is an oversight that I should have paid attention to more closely. And I know that’s what many people are feeling right now.
But there was a vacancy on our five-member board. And I’ll never forget, my husband mentioned, came home one day and he said, “Hey, you should run for school board.” And I said, “You’re insane,” because we have an 8-month-old. And he said, “No, we’re raising a family. Education is key. Government takes a long time to work and this is our opportunity to really put a voice for parents and give them a seat at the table.”
And my parents live in Sarasota and they’re trusted advisers and mentors to me. And so I remember having a brief conversation with them and my father said, “Prepare yourself for a lot of scrutiny.” But I was like, “Eh, it’s not going to be that crazy.” So ignorance is a bit of bliss. I jumped off that ledge and I think even my husband being involved in politics, I don’t think he had any sense of how polarizing and how nasty that election would’ve been.
I came out very vocally, and didn’t realize this was a taboo statement, but I just came out and my platform was, I believe in parental empowerment, I believe in school choice, but I also believe it’s imperative that we provide the highest quality public education options for our families. And that was taboo, if you know that school choice is like a four-letter word in the union world, and then it was on.
The governor at the time, Rick Scott, did appoint me while I was running, so that elevated it a little bit more. But at the short of it, I’ll tell you, I got there, I was 31, I was the youngest elected official to serve on the school board and still think I hold that record, but it was mind-boggling to me because I did work in corporate America and worked with lots of boards and just to see the behavior of my colleagues was shocking to me. And I would come home and tell my husband or my family or anyone else who would listen, “You guys wouldn’t believe the antics or how these people behave.”
And so I remember shortly thereafter, the more I saw, the more passionate I got. And I have a very strong faith and it’s only growing stronger as I’ve gotten older and had a family and I believe God opened a door and I’m so glad I stepped through it because I believe this has become a true calling for me.
And I don’t mean that to be over virtuous. I just think that there are a lot of times where it’s challenging and it’s hard and sometimes, especially being in the minority on my board for the last two terms, until now, thank God, you would try to beat your head against the wall and say, “Is this worth it?” But even in a minority position, you can do a lot of good work.
I’ve met some amazing people along the way. Erika Donalds, she’s a former school board member in Collier County, Florida, was elected in 2014 as well. We affectionately call ourselves the OGs in this conservative school board movement.
And we all have taken different roles. I’ve still maintained on the school board, Tina Descovich, co-founder with Tiffany Justice of Moms for Liberty. So it’s fun seeing just this first, I don’t know, generation or this first class of conservative, outspoken school board members, at least in the 2000 era. I know there’s many in the ’90s, but to really see how far we’ve come, it’s mind-boggling, seeing parental rights being a national discussion when it’s something we’ve been working on starting in 2015 really and then really in 2018.
And so just overarching aspect of, as a parent of young school-aged children, now I have three, a 3-, 6-, and 9-year-old, you realize that these decisions that policymakers on school boards are making have a direct and immediate impact to families. And so often you don’t have someone who’s a voice for families that’s not part of the establishment or the education institution, that’s really an outsider.
And so I’m proud to say I’ve held that line. I haven’t drank the Kool-Aid. I’ve maintained a distance from “central office” so that I could maintain objective. And now that we have a majority—so just for the listeners, Sarasota County is a very conservative county, but for decades we had a majority liberal board and since I’ve been serving, it was a 3-2 liberal majority. And then Aug. 23, my third reelection and final reelection, on the record for everyone to hear, we were able to flip the board to a 4-1 conservative.
So I am so excited. We get sworn in, the new school board members get sworn in Nov. 22. And as I tell a lot of people, it’s a breath of fresh air, but now the real work begins.
Now we have the majority, we have an opportunity to illustrate what an optimal model school board looks like and what they do, how they serve their stakeholders, how they recognize they work for the people and recognize their job is to utilize the taxpayer money from all different kinds of people, whether they have school-aged children, whether they own businesses, what have you. But all are investing in this with the purpose of ensuring every child graduates prepared for whatever happens after high school, whether it be college, whether it be trade, whether it be military, whether it be workforce.
And so I am incredibly excited, but I do not diminish the real work that rests ahead of us. And there is quite a bit because the way, especially with the woke ideology that has absolutely permeated K-12 education in many institutions, we have a lot to unwind.
I’m grateful for our governor here in Florida and our Legislature that put together quality, really valuable pieces of legislation, but now as a local school board member, we have to enact that and hold that line.
Bluey: Thank you for stepping up and your leadership. I do have to ask, as a mom yourself, I imagine your time is quite limited. I mean, with three kids, particularly at the ages that you mentioned, and you’ve decided this is a worthwhile effort. You’re also wearing another hat now, as I mentioned, working with the Leadership Institute as the school board programs director. Why is it valuable for a parent to make this kind of commitment and what do you tell others that are involved in training or maybe who are thinking about doing this decision themselves?
Ziegler: It’s funny. I worked in the corporate world and I had a pretty high-demanding job in the private sector and still managed with young kids and the school board. And people always ask, how much time commitment is the school board? And I say, “It’s real important work, so it’s what you make it.”
But I invest lots of hours, reading the budget, reading the contracts, that’s my fiduciary responsibility, a sworn oath to do something, and I don’t take that lightly.
But then you really see, I think it’s the stories and the families and the constituents that you will reach, reach out to you because they hit a roadblock of some sort and then found a way to reach out.
For example, for me, I always try to make my door open as a public servant and you would be able to solve some of them minor, some of them major issues. And every time I would be able to help solve those issues, I would think to myself, “How many other families are out there that hit that roadblock and didn’t know what that next step is and didn’t know how to advocate for their child?”
As a working mom with many hats, I understand that juggle and that struggle and what a chaotic day looks like just trying to get our kids out of the door on time is a struggle for me, as is laundry, but I haven’t mastered that yet. But I think that you see how important this is, and to make sure that they have a voice, but it’s not just that.
I mean, I see it, my children are my why, and I’m not doing it—I’m a huge advocate of parental rights and parental responsibility and what I choose for my child, my husband and I choose, how we choose to raise them does not belittle or take away how another family chooses to raise their child.
So when I say my children are my why, they are my why because it’s not just them, it’s their entire generation. It’s their opportunity to leave them with a better tomorrow for their future to be successful, for their country to be rooted in the principles that was founded upon which we see getting eroded every single day.
And I believe we’re so fortunate to live in this amazing country. I think I live in the greatest state in the country and I think it’s worth fighting for because you see that you know people before us fought and gave their lives for the freedoms that we have. And I believe so much of this starts in education and I am committed to it.
And so anyone who’s thinking about it, there’s a million ways you could probably tell yourself you can’t. You can probably talk yourself out of it. And when I talk to candidates, I’m very transparent and sometimes I feel like I’m like, “I’m not trying to talk you out of it,” but what I tell everyone is, “Listen, certainly running for office, win or lose, you learn so much about yourself and so much about other people, it’s an amazing journey. Obviously, you go for the win, but at the end of the day, win or lose, it is a worthwhile effort.”
And then the other part is, so many people will find a reason why they can’t, but like I said, I stepped off that ledge and I didn’t really give myself too much time. We didn’t have much time to make that decision. I think it was a 24- to 48-hour time period, so I didn’t have the opportunity to really talk myself out of it, it was blindly jumping off.
But … I’m proud to say that I surprised myself and I think largely every single person, no matter what your circumstances, when you take a leap of faith, you will, guaranteed, surprise yourself because especially if you are passionate about it—and I can’t think of anything that drives people when it comes to their children, the future of our communities and our country. And that drive is powerful.
And so to me, translating what I have learned, my experiences, the arrows in my back and the thick skin that I have, which it’s taken, I think it was the first article, really, after I cried in the shower because it was ugly and a horrible article and it was 2014, but after that you just dust yourself off and you’re like, “All right, bring it on. This is worth fighting for.”
And I have many moments like that, but I tell everyone, “There is arguably nothing more important than the education of our children and the future for our children as we look at the future of this country. And we are at a battle. We are at a moment where we all have to step up. We can’t be complacent and hope somebody else does it for us. We all play a role that looks like different things, whether it be activism in the grassroots standpoint, whether it be helping a campaign, whether it be running for office.”
And so when I look at the Leadership Institute, I was so excited for that opportunity. I left the insurance world completely and jumped in full steam ahead, full all school board piece because I believe in it and I believe it requires this level of investment of time and focus and believe that I have a lot to share based on the journey that I’ve experienced and that people can learn from that.
And then together we can work toward, county by county, district by district, making that impact and what we call righting the ship.
And listen, the Left has been at this for decades and people need to understand this isn’t going to be a quick flip of anything. We need to invest our time, invest our mind, and understand that it’s worth fighting for and that we have to be in it for the long haul.
But Leadership Institute has the tools to train them and like I said on the activist piece, on the campaign standpoint, and also when you’re a newly elected school board member—which is the part I’m so excited about because there really is arguably nothing else compared to the National School Boards Association, which has a monopoly on the training for elected officials across the country.
And then you have organizations like Heritage that provide valuable resources when it comes to policy and such. So together in that collaboration, we can really make a powerful impact and it really comes down to the future and the direction of our country. So if you can’t tell, I’m incredibly passionate about it.
Bluey: Oh, I can tell. And we appreciate that passion and I hope that our listeners find it motivating for themselves to get involved, whether they’re a grandparent or a parent or somebody who wants to contribute to their community in some ways, to follow you, the example that you’ve set and Moms for Liberty has set and Leadership Institute and others and follow that path.
Before we come back to LI, I want you to talk a little bit about some of the trainings you’re doing, I want to go back to some of the issues that you’ve worked on there in Sarasota County because it seems that you’ve talked about things of transparency and just good governance and fiscal responsibility, but also, I mean, you’ve been an outspoken critic of some of the indoctrination tactics we’ve seen, not just there, but across the country in terms of our kids’ education and maybe related to gender, maybe related to critical race theory. Are those issues popping up in your school district now? What have you done about them?
Ziegler: I’m a policy nerd and I particularly don’t like the politics. I’ll tell you, it’s taken some time to stomach it, still sometimes challenging, but it comes with the territory and having to figure out how to navigate that. And I think a lot of people get frustrated with the political environment, and that’s even before the current moment. I mean, that always just leaves a bad taste in some people’s mouths.
But you also have to look at it as to what you’re fighting for. And you don’t have to sacrifice your morals or your values. I certainly believe that I report to one person at the end of the day and I want to feel good about the decisions I’ve made. Doesn’t mean I’m perfect, doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes, but aren’t always super easy issues that there’s a very clear discernment of which is the right path and you just try to evaluate it as best as possible.
But I believe so dearly in the governance structure that you are a public servant and I hold those foundational principles that I believe in limited government. I believe in the value and the importance of the nuclear family and that parents, in fact, are the primary decision-makers for their minor children and that government does not know better than parents.
And you see in these K-12 environments the gross overreach and I think a lot of it maybe got masked as well-intended programs or what have you, but as our governor in Florida has said, a lot of these are a Trojan horse for cultural Marxism.
And I go back to the story back a couple years ago where you’d hear people come to public comment and say, “This is Marxist.” And I remember being, like, “Oh, I don’t know.” And then I started to do a lot more research on my own because I wanted to make sure I really understood what other people, where they were coming from. And I don’t leave it to other people to tell me what to think, I have to take it upon myself to do my research. And I really was blown away.
But that was even just two or three years ago. It was this journey unexpectedly started with the transgender piece.
And I will be very clear, I’m not anti- anything, again, I border on libertarian when it comes to certain things, but when we’re talking about minor children, there’s a very different ballgame. And as a public education institution, a government body, I believe that we have to celebrate the diverse community that we serve, but respect the diverse community that we serve and understand that there’s a variety of different religious beliefs, cultural backgrounds, political beliefs.
And so it is not appropriate for a government institution to promote or push any of those, and that’s what we’re seeing. But what was more alarming to me was that they used the LGBTQ, trans in specific marginalized population, as they’ll call it, to get into people’s psyche and pull at their emotional heartstrings then to create this division and this narrative—a narrative is, “School is safe, home is dangerous.”
And they use child welfare as their kind of playbook because, yeah, there are families or parents that have made horrible decisions and no child deserves, I don’t care what, deserves to be in an environment where they’re being neglected or abused, period. And we have laws on the book in every state that already addresses that.
Is the child welfare system perfect? No, by no means, and it actually does require a lot more work and an area that I will continue to focus on. But that doesn’t mean that, as a policymaker, we hand over those rights because there is a percentage or a small percentage of people that choose to do things and do harm.
We need to be able to respond to those, but we also don’t just completely hand over or sacrifice the rights of families and parents. And what you’re seeing over years was this barrier that was intentional to shut parents out.
And for an education, academic institution, it’s counterproductive to our mission, which is academic excellence, because the No. 1 piece—I’m trying to think of that bullet point—that has the most significant impact on a child’s academic success is parental involvement. Second to that is the quality of their teacher.
Now, socioeconomic status layers over that, does have some implications, but far and above, and I don’t care what white paper, what organization did this study, it’s far-right, left, center, all over the place consistently will tell you that the No. 1 indicator of a child’s academic success is parental involvement.
So why would a public education institution be promoting any kind of guidelines or policies or working with organizations that are intentionally creating barriers for families to be involved in their minor child’s education or major decisions?
And that’s when I saw it with the gender diverse guidelines, that there was just this one line in it that said, “It’s up to the student, the student alone, that has the right to determine what gender and pronoun and facility uses that so choose to use.” And it prevented staff from reaching out or sharing any of this information with their student’s [parents].
So these are minor children and we’re talking about major issues. I’m not talking about sexual orientation, I’m talking about changing your name, changing your facility usage, using mental health counseling, and potentially even going as far as gender transitioning or using third-party organizations to promote that.
And at that time, it was kind of early on, I didn’t realize the depths of it across the nation at that time. This was in 2017, 2018 is when I made a motion, I forced the vote because they do them by way of guidelines, and this is across the country, so this playbook is used everywhere and more and more people are seeing it.
But you have organizations like Human Rights Campaign, Equality Florida in Florida, they have Equality “name the state” all over the country that, they lobby school board associations, school board members, and superintendents on how to do this. And they say, do it under the guise of guidelines so that it circumvents the public, it circumvents the scrutiny, change your anti-discrimination policy to include gender identity. And there you go, there’s your pathway to this.
We’re seeing the same thing with [critical race theory] and it comes to equity committees and equity policies, the same playbook’s being used, but it’s all an intent to create a division and cut families out and also has devastating impacts.
So at that time when I forced a vote, I made an amendment to at least require notification. I wanted consent, but my first step was to make a motion to require parental notification, and it failed 3-to-2 and I just couldn’t believe it. And I said, “This is this government body that thinks that they’re saying that they know better.”
And there is no litmus test to discern what is a “bad parent.” That’s a judicial term, by the way. There was no guiding force there. And that’s a very dangerous, slippery slope. And again, that was, however, five years ago, and we see how far it’s gone and we see how deep it is across the country.
And this is the stuff that gets my hair up on its end because this is infuriating. It’s egregious. It’s a total exploitation of our public education system. It’s a total exploitation of our children, young impressionable minds, they’re captive audience and it’s being exploited. And it’s being exploited for harm.
And people now, thankfully, are speaking up. And again, I have to applaud, I’m a big fan of my governor, if you can’t tell, Gov. [Ron] DeSantis. But it’s so refreshing to see someone at that level, that stature, that popularity to boldly speak up about these things because there are fellow conservatives that I would beg at certain levels to raise issues and bring this forward.
I mean, when we wrote the Parents’ Bill of Rights in Florida in 2018, filed that bill, took three legislative sessions to pass, but there were even at that time members who were “conservative” that were uncomfortable taking this on because I don’t think they understood it and I think, again, they didn’t want to be called all the names that I’ve been called, of which I’m none of them.
But now we see that’s their playbook. They do that to shut people down. And we’ve got to fight because we are seeing the catastrophic outcomes that’s having on young children, particularly young females, and it’s so wrong.
And I believe, I’m a big Ben Shapiro fan, and I think the way Matt Walsh and Shapiro are speaking out about this stuff, they’re right. We’re going to look back in a decade or so and just say, “What in God’s name? Where was the moral fabric or just the common sense of the majority of our country that isn’t willing to stand up and fight and protect our children?”
So, that’s a long-winded answer, but that playbook is being used across the country and it’s not being used just only for gender ideology, although that is going fast and furiously, and I think it’s grossly misunderstood, but the media doesn’t really do any favors because they spin it to using the tagline, “Don’t say gay,” which had nothing to do with that legislation, as you know.
So that’s the kind of battle we’re in for. But the more we do and more we work at the grassroots level, the more people know—listen, the media has a lower approval rating than Congress. They know, when they’re involved for the first time, that these articles are just blatantly inaccurate.
And that’s the kind of work we need to be doing every day and that’s the kind of work, like I say, pivot over to Leadership Institute or Moms for Liberty or organizations that are grassroots organizations across the country are doing and doing a great job to help raise awareness to this and help these families and parents and concerned citizens understand how best to advocate and fight back so that we can restore education and we can protect our children.
Bluey: Thank you for having the courage to do that and train and educate others on ways that they can go about doing that in their own communities.
Of course, Florida has a great foundation. The Heritage Foundation recently came out with our Education Freedom Report Card and ranked Florida No. 1 in the nation out of all 50 states, in part because of some of the measures that you’ve just talked about there. So congratulations on the success that you’re having in your state.
Bridget, I want to leave you one final word here to talk about the Leadership Institute. What is coming up in terms of the way of training and ways that people who are listening to this podcast can get involved?
Ziegler: I’m so honored and so excited to be a part of the Leadership Institute, which has such a strong reputation, the conservative movement.
And what I think I appreciate so much about them is that they’re not in it for a short term, whatever the new vote item of the day is, they’re in it for the long term because they understand that this country and the principles of this country was founded on are worth fighting for and protecting and education is paramount to this. So it’s an honor to be able to do the training.
And so, like I said, we have online on-demand training, there’s going to be some more updates to that. I have, since I’ve came on board in July of this year, there’s a lot of work to be done. So there’s a lot of demand across the country, which is so inspiring and so exciting.
So I do everything from live trainings to live webinars. We’re doing a crash course Dec. 10 in Sarasota, Florida. That’s where I’m out of and you’ll see a lot of trainings take place, the hub in Florida will be Sarasota for LI. But then to utilize that as a model, we’ll be doing that across the country.
We’ll be using this one-day training for new school board members so that the goal is that you transfer from campaigning to governing.
And that does take a bit of a mindset flip. And so now it’s, “Now what? I just won this election, I just worked my rear end off, and now what?” And now it comes to governing and it’s so important to have the training from a conservative perspective because when I first got elected, the only training was the National School Boards Association’s local chapter of the Florida School Boards Association. And the first thing they tell you is, “Your job is to protect the superintendent and support public schools.”
Well, that’s a part of it, but no, your job is oversight and accountability for the stakeholders to ensure that we’re providing high-quality academic outcomes for every child. That’s our job, not to be a cheerleader. You can do that if things are being done the right way, but there’s a lot of things about how the governance structure, the budget process of collective bargaining, public record laws, Robert’s Rules of Order.
I mean, I’m just giving a quick high level of what we’ll be training on so that our conservative school board members who worked so hard to get elected have the tools to hold that line and then we’ll dive deeper. So that’s kind of the one-day crash course.
We’ll have online items in each area, sub chapter to dive deeper. And then we’ll also be doing mini conferences regionally. Like I said, in Florida it’ll be in February. So keep an eye out for that.
It’ll be a two-day conference where we’ll have different media training and breakout sessions and policy partners that’ll come in and share those different topics so that we can continuously work together and strengthen our conservative school board members and also the activists and candidates that are thinking about running.
So you have the tools so you can step off that ledge and hold that line because we have to work together in order to really change the course of education and direction of this country.
So you can find me on Twitter, @bridgetaziegler. You can also email me at email@example.com. I know that’s a mouthful. … And please reach out to me any way. I do customized trainings. I have people reaching out to me of all sorts, and we’ll figure out what that audience looks like. Is it mostly candidates or people thinking about being a candidate?
So we’ll do activism/campaign training and then the new school board member training is something I arguably am most excited about because that is a massive void and we are able to fill it and I couldn’t be more excited to help our fellow conservatives be empowered, be knowledgeable, understand how the system—and I mean “true system”—works, and how they can best hold that line. And I’m very, very honored to have this opportunity.
Bluey: Bridget, we’re grateful that you’re doing it. We’ll be sure to provide a link for all our listeners if they want to log on to dailysignal.com and view the transcript of this interview and also the show notes of this podcast. We’ll provide the link there to the Leadership Institute trainings and of course, to follow you on social media as well.
Bridget, we wish you the best of luck as you embark on this new makeup of the school board where conservatives will have a majority. And it is exciting times, certainly there in Florida and across the country, as more and more parents step up for these important roles and hopefully reclaim our schools and put the focus back where it should be.
Ziegler: Absolutely. It’s an honor. Thank you so much for the opportunity and please reach out to me and I’ll continue to keep you guys posted because we have a lot of work ahead of us, but … an amazing momentum is happening right now and we need to seize it.