Latson Case Spawns Bills, Singer’s State of the City, and More

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(Photo by Jessica Ruscello)

Two bills in the Legislature would update and toughen requirements that public schools in Florida teach students about the Holocaust. The bills might as well be named for William Latson and Spanish River High School.

HB 1213 and SB 1628 have passed four committees with no dissenting votes. They would require that schools “certify and provide evidence” each year that they are complying with state law. The bills also would authorize the Department of Education to work with the Florida Holocaust Museum and other sources to craft standards for Holocaust education.

Meanwhile, there’s more evidence that Latson—the former Spanish River principal whose comments about the Holocaust touched off this controversy—deserved to lose his job. There’s also more evidence of how the Palm Beach County School District bungled the case of William Latson rather than head off the controversy at the start.

To review, The Palm Beach Post reported last July on an email exchange between Latson and a Spanish River parent who had questioned the school’s compliance on teaching the Holocaust. At one point, Latson said, “I can’t say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee.”

That exchange, however, had happened more than a year before the Post reported it. Latson’s supervisors knew about the comment, but they had allowed him to stay at Spanish River. That was their first mistake. Based on Latson’s remark, they at least should have removed him as principal. Though Latson claimed that he acknowledges the Holocaust as a fact, any parent could reasonably have questioned his sincerity.

That failure to act on Latson almost certainly led to someone within the district leaking the emails to the Post. The resulting story had the leaker’s desired effect. It was like touching a match to flash paper.

School board member Frank Barbieri, who represents Boca Raton, told me at the time that he was getting calls of outrage  from multiple “continents.” Palm Beach County in general and Boca Raton in particular came off as dens of Holocaust denial. Two state legislators demanded “a full and complete investigation into how such anti-Semitic conduct could have been tolerated and covered up by the school district’s bureaucracy for more than a year.”

Complicating matters, Superintendent Donald Fennoy was on a cruise and hard to reach. Latson was about to go on vacation in Jamaica. Latson then exacerbated matters three days after the Post story when he emailed the staff at Spanish River to complain that he had been disciplined because the parent had made a “false statement.” In fact, the emails corroborated everything the parent had said.

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Former Spanish River High school Principal William Latson, photo courtesy of SDPBC

In October, the school board finally fired Latson, but not for his comments about the Holocaust. The stated cause was Latson’s refusal to communicate properly with his supervisors after the controversy broke. It was like arresting the bank robber for jaywalking as he tried to escape. Two board members voted against termination.

Not surprisingly, given all that mismanagement, the controversy continues. Latson appealed his firing. This month, the Post reported that the school district human resources employee assigned to investigate Latson’s case has filed for whistleblower status. Robert Pinkos said district officials had told him not to investigate Latson’s comments and to focus only on his actions after the first Post story. Pinkos said such limitations were unusual.

After 18 days, Pinkos recused himself, saying that the district should investigate Latson’s former supervisors—including Deputy Superintendent Keith Oswald—for not acting on the Holocaust remarks in 2018. Pinkos said he had to recuse himself because Oswald supervises Pinkos’ wife, who is an assistant superintendent.

During the administrative hearing on his appeal, Latson sounded even more clueless than he had with the parent. According to the Post, Latson defended himself by saying that opinions about the Holocaust are a “personal ideology.” Deniers deserved his “tolerance” of their views.

“That’s my personal ideology,” Latson said. “Even though I believe the Holocaust existed, (the parent) didn’t have the right to ask me that information, and I had the right not to answer.”

When he responded to the parent’s complaint, Latson was misreading the law on Holocaust education that the Legislature created in 1994. His bosses could have understood that and disciplined him. Latson, though, told the hearing officer that his supervisors supported him. Though the parent wanted him removed, “The only criticism (from the district) was I could have worded a better email.”

We may never know why the district didn’t remove Latson from Spanish River in 2018. We do know that time and recent developments have made that non-decision look even worse.

State of the city?

Boca Raton Mayor Scott Singer

Of all the the things Boca Raton residents might have wanted, a State of the City Address likely wasn’t among them. Yet that’s what Boca Raton will get tonight.

Mayor Scott Singer will deliver Boca Raton’s first such address at 6:30 in the Mizner Park Cultural Arts Center. According to the city’s website, Singer will discuss “initiatives,” “partnerships” and the city’s economy.

Singer sought support for the speech at a city council meeting and met no resistance, even if he also didn’t get overwhelming support. The supposed goal is to highlight developments that don’t come up regularly during meetings and reassure taxpayers about the city’s progress.

Delray Beach once had similar events. Former Mayor Cary Glickstein said the city ended them in 2012, the year before he was elected. Attendees were mostly regulars at city commission meetings, so the audiences weren’t new. The city then held town hall-type meetings on specific subjects.

The problem with Singer giving such a speech is that Boca Raton has a weak-mayor form of government, even though the job is an elected position. City Manager Leif Ahnell is the CEO. Singer has ceremonial duties, but he has no more power than the four city council members who set policy with him. So Singer couldn’t announce any dramatic proposals on his own.

Most such addresses tend to be upbeat and heavy on platitudes. We’ll see if this is one is different.

Mizner Park lawsuit

Boca Raton City Attorney Diana Frieser has asked to hold an executive session—closed to the public—with city council members regarding the Mizner Park lawsuit.

Though the litigation lists Crocker Downtown Development Associates as the plaintiff, the action was filed by Brookfield Properties, which manages the retail component of Mizner Park. The company took over from General Growth Properties, which over from Tom Crocker, who struck the original deal with the city’s community redevelopment agency.

Under the lease with the CRA, Brookfield can buy the retail structures and parking garages from the city. When the company filed the lawsuit in November 2018, the issue was whether the two sides had to go through arbitration to determine a price. Based on court records, the issue now is what “interests” Brookfield would be buying.

Frieser’s request for the meeting may be tied to a ruling last month in which Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Lisa Small denied the CRA’s petition to dismiss a counterclaim by Brookfield. Small noted that a trial seemed “unavoidable.”

Demand strong in Boca and Delray office market  

office space

Demand for office space in Boca Raton and Delray Beach remains strong, according to a report by Transwestern Commercial Services.

In Boca Raton, which has nearly 16 million square feet of space, the vacancy rate for the last three months on 2019 was 10.2 percent. In Delray Beach, it was 9.1 percent.

Though Delray Beach has only about one-seventh the inventory of Boca Raton, the report notes that Atlantic Crossing in Delray Beach is scheduled to open a 24,000-square foot medical office building in January and 65,000 square feet of office space three months later.

Delray Beach wants to expand its commercial property base, to bring tax revenue and diversity the city’s economy away from residential construction and hospitality. Transwestern is “extremely” bullish on this area’s commercial real estate market.

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