Thursday, August 22, 2019

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The big FAU gift, why the Office of Inspector General matters and other items of note

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On the FAU football issue

Florida Atlantic University President John Kelly has basically unqualified support from the person who matters most as Kelly tries to remake what began as a regional university into a national university.

That person is Richard Schmidt (above), who runs the Schmidt Family Foundation. You can make a good argument that a better name for the school is Florida Atlantic/Schmidt University, given the many millions that have gone to FAU in name of the foundation and Schmidt family members. The family is by far the largest private donor.

Schmidt himself got an MBA from Florida Atlantic, and he served on the search committee that a year ago made Kelly, then at Clemson University, one of three finalists to succeed Mary Jane Saunders. I spoke with him last month, not long after Kelly announced the $16 million gift from the Schmidt Family Foundation for an athletic/academic complex that Kelly touts as “transformational”—the first milestone on FAU’s journey through sports to the major leagues of academics.

When I asked why Schmidt thought Kelly’s plan would work, he responded that the question was “rhetorical.” Fair enough. If he didn’t believe that Kelly could pull it off, Schmidt wouldn’t have backed the deal with $16 million that he could have designated for anything. Still, isn’t there a considerable risk of a university with a 55-79 record since entering the top tier of collegiate football betting its academic future on sports?

“I know what the culture is,” Schmidt said of FAU. “It hasn’t made that transformation,” but Kelly is “trying to take that final step.” To make his case, Schmidt points not to a state university but to the private University of Miami.

For half a century, UM—whose fans now call it “The U”—had occasional (but never sustained or high-level) football success. In 1979, UM hired Howard Schnellenberger as its coach. When he promised a national championship within five years, few gave him a chance. After all, before hiring Schnellenberger UM officials had considered downgrading the football program. Four years later, UM beat Nebraska to win that national title.

“That (championship) changed the whole nature of the school,” Schmidt said. It is true that three decades ago UM was known more as “Suntan U.,” drawing students from the Northeast more with the promise of mild winters and a pretty campus than of challenging academics. It also is true that the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings had UM tied for 48th with the University of Florida among national universities. At No. 47 was the University of Wisconsin, where Donna Shalala was president before serving for eight years in the Clinton administration and then becoming UM’s president. Shalala will retire this year. And it is true that Schnellenberger started the football program at FAU.

“Sports brings money,” Schmidt said. “That means better teachers and better funding.” He means private donations, not state support, which in Florida has been waning when it comes to higher education. It is true that in 2003 UM became the first university in Florida—public or private—to top $1 billion in a fund-raising campaign, even though UM’s enrollment is less than half that of the University of Florida.

UM, though, has always been a traditional school of 18-22-year-olds who live on campus and whose parents want them to finish in four years because of the $44,000-plus annual cost. FAU began as a commuter school for juniors and seniors. It has evolved considerably in 50 years, but three-fourths of FAU students still come from Palm Beach and Broward counties, and the six-yeargraduation rate is only about 40 percent—second-worst among the 12 state universities.

Like Kelly, however, Schmidt is convinced that FAU is undervalued because it has been undersold. “There’s such a pool of talent here,” he said, noting the ocean engineering programs—with its submarine team—and the well-regarded accounting department. He could have added the nursing program and others.

Schmidt also could have pointed out that UM’s four-year graduation rate is more than 70 percent, or roughly 30 points higher than it was in the early 1990s. That comes from attracting better students, which is Kelly’s goal. Schmidt could have pointed out that the University of South Florida in Tampa, which is just eight years older than FAU and started top-tier football just a little earlier, has a record since then of 90-79.

With the $16 million, Schmidt told me, “The family has demonstrated that Kelly has support in the community.” Still, Schmidt says the financial push “has to be grass-roots. FAU has 100,000 alumni, and they need to participate.” That is just one way in which Kelly must move FAU in years what has taken other universities decades to achieve, and it’s just one more reason why the odds can seem high and the priorities wrong. Don’t tell it to Schmidt. “I think,” he said, “we’re a lot closer to this lofty goal than people realize.”

The inspector general strikes again

On New Year’s Eve, we saw another reason that Palm Beach County is lucky to have an inspector general.

The office issued a report on Riviera Beach Parks and Recreation Director John Williams, finding that he “misused” his city purchasing card and “falsified” records. Williams, the report said, claimed that his city-owned vehicle had been unavailable for roughly nine months, forcing him to lease a replacement.

In fact, according to the report, Williams’ vehicle had been in the city’s maintenance shop for just 80 days. The report identified nearly $20,000 that Williams may have caused the city to spend needlessly. The report also showed that Riviera Beach has far too little oversight of how department heads use their purchasing cards.

You can take away several things from the report. One is to wonder why the state attorney’s office declined to prosecute Williams. Another, though, is to understand that without the Office of Inspector General the taxpayers of Riviera Beach never would have known about this.

The county commission created the office in 2009, as part of ethics reform following the guilty pleas of three commissioners to corruption charges. Fourteen cities are challenging the method of paying for the office. A judge heard arguments in August.

Boca Raton and Delray Beach remain parties to the lawsuit. Even at this point, the cities could make a positive statement by withdrawing from the lawsuit and paying their share of the office’s cost. More than 70 percent of voters in Boca and Delray demanded that the office provide oversight and pay for it. Delray especially has benefited from that oversight, which allows not just employees but residents to make complaints. As we just saw, sometimes the office tells a city’s top officials something they didn’t know—or didn’t want the public to know.

And in that vein…

Speaking of public corruption, the trial of former Delray Beach City Commissioner Angeleta Gray has been delayed from Friday until April.

Gray is charged with one count of violating the county’s ethics code and one count of conspiracy. In December 2013, Gray voted to approve a contract that, investigators said, would have benefited another former commissioner, Alberta McCarthy.

Before the vote, McCarthy allegedly paid down roughly $1,200 of a loan that Gray had taken out. According to the state attorney’s office, there was no talk of Gray repaying McCarthy, who also faces the same two criminal charges. McCarthy was campaign manager for Gray’s failed reelection campaign last year. A trial in April would come one year after prosecutors filed the charges.

Vape update

On Tuesday, I wrote (link here) that the Delray Beach City Commission would discuss an ordinance to regulate e-cigarettes—they give off vapor, not smoke—under the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act. The ordinance passed 4-0. The ordinance will take effort if it the commission approves it on second reading, probably in two weeks.

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You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

For more City Watch blogs, click here.About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.

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Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.
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