On Sunday, Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri told me that the Knesset–Israel’s parliament–would be watching the board’s vote a day later on whether to fire former Spanish River High School Principal William Latson.
On July 7, 2019, the Palm Beach Post reported an email exchange between Latson and a Spanish River parent who had asked about the school’s compliance with state law requiring Holocaust education. During that exchange, Latson said that he “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.”
Reaction was swift, fierce and worldwide. Palm Beach County came off as a place where coddling Holocaust-denying parents mattered more than acknowledging the genocide that killed six million Jews. And it was happening in a school with many Jewish students and in a county with roughly 140,000 Jewish residents, many of them Holocaust survivors or relatives of survivors.
In terms of public relations damage, it was to the school district and board what the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill was to BP. Monday’s vote was part of the cleanup.
But the cleanup itself has been messy.
After the email revelations, School Superintendent Donald Fennoy transferred Latson from Spanish River. Last October, the board voted to fire him.
But that vote was only 5-2. Board members Barbara McQuinn and Debra Robinson wanted to keep Latson. McQuinn had proposed a 10-day suspension.
Latson appealed. An administrative law judge concluded that the board had overstepped. On Oct. 7, based on that finding and a recommendation from the district’s outside labor counsel, board members Marcia Andrews and Chuck Shaw joined McQuinn and Robinson and voted to reinstate Latson. Barbieri, Karen Brill and Erica Whitfield again voted to fire him.
There followed a new round of swift, fierce, widespread criticism–so much that the board had to postpone its review of the vote from Oct. 21 so that members could read all the comments. Barbieri, who represents Boca Raton and West Boca, had made the decision to revisit the decision.
On Monday, the rehabilitation effort included individual board members, most notably McQuinn, who represents the north end of the county.
McGuinn, a former principal, spoke of the long conversation she had with a Jewish friend who characterized her as a “rule follower.” Having now decided that she could reject the judge’s finding and the attorneys’ recommendation, McGuinn described herself as “at peace” with changing her vote.
Shaw, who is retiring this month and spent decades as a school administrator, drew criticism for basing his vote last month on money – the risk of further litigation. On Monday, Shaw claimed to have assumed that the state would revoke Latson’s teaching certificate and thus resolve the matter. He acknowledged that his “calculated guess didn’t pan out.”
Andrews, also a former principal, said, “We missed the point the first time.” Robinson, who–like Andrews–is African-American, noted the shared pain of Blacks and Jews and basically said that she now understands the pain of Latson’s comments.
After the vote to fire Latson, the board approved a response to the judge’s ruling. It will challenge multiple findings and serve as the basis of the district’s defense when Latson appeals.
Most prominently, the district will allege that Latson’s insubordination was so severe that it warranted his dismissal. A day after the story broke, Deputy Superintendent Keith Oswald tried to call Latson–who was in Jamaica–multiple times, each time more “urgently.” Latson made other calls, but not to Oswald.
Then Oswald ordered Latson not to comment on the matter in his letter to the Spanish River community after being transferred. Instead, Latson blamed the controversy on a “false statement” by the parent. That was untrue, as the email chain showed. As board members noted Monday, Latson doubled down and then tripled down. Latson’s recent apology came much too late.
If he wants to fight the firing, Latson will take his case to the 4th District Court of Appeal. Any ruling could take a year. Or the case might not get that far. Now that the board has acted, the state will open that investigation Shaw had hoped for. If the Department of Education revoked Latson’s certificate, he could not sue.
The case, though, will go on beyond the courts. The Office of Inspector General will investigate the district’s investigation of Latson. That probe could help to explain why the district didn’t act until the story became public.
Brill had raised the issue twice at board meetings, without naming Spanish River or Latson. The parent didn’t start by asking hostile questions. She simply sought information. Latson fumbled the response and the district fumbled on from there.
“We made a lot of mistakes,” Andrews understated. The damage continues. Finally, though, the school board is on the record against Holocaust denial. Perhaps the world can stop watching for a while.
Latson had offered to settle the case. He wanted his $152,000 in back pay, which he already has received. He also wanted the Holocaust incident wiped from his record, somehow believing that an Internet search wouldn’t turn up any mention of it.
And in exchange for his resignation, Latson also wanted $495,000. As if.
Barbieri didn’t just get the Latson issue back before the board quickly. He ran Monday’s meeting efficiently and effectively.
Relying on his professional training–he’s a lawyer–and the district’s attorneys, Barbieri took his colleagues rebuttal by rebuttal through the administrative law judge’s ruling. The district seems to have a sound argument if the case reaches the appellate court.
Keep in mind that the board members–especially Barbieri–have had to deal with the Latson mess in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic. The salary for board members is about $41,000. Anyone want to trade places?
FL House district 89
Roughly $2 million will be spent on the Florida House 89 race. The seat includes Boca Raton, Delray Beach east of Federal Highway and points north all the way to Mar-a-Lago, home of President Trump.
That total includes direct contributions to Republican incumbent Mike Caruso and Democratic challenger James Bonfiglio and donations from outside groups. Caruso beat Bonfiglio by 32 votes in 2018. The 89th is considered one of the few swing districts in the House.
Delray GreenMarket reopens
The Delray Beach GreenMarket opened on Halloween for its 25th year. The market, at Old School, Square will be open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday until late May.
Boca Bowl update
The seventh Boca Raton Bowl, if it happens, will take place at 7 p.m. on Dec. 22 at Florida Atlantic University Stadium. As with so many events, this one depends on the pandemic. Teams would come from a wider range of conferences and ESPN again would televise it.
Both parties have urged voters to return mail-in ballots as early as possible. Unlike some states, Florida will accept only ballots that arrive at the supervisor of elections office by 7 p.m. tonight.
To collect as many ballots as possible, the office will make one trip to the county’s main post office near West Palm Beach at 10 a.m. and another between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. The office locks its doors at 7 p.m., and there’s one last trip to the post office at 7:45 p.m.
I’ll report Thursday on the local races.