“For me, this isn’t over.” That’s what Palm Beach County School Board member Karen Brill told me on Monday. She was referring to the board’s 4-3 vote last week to rehire former Spanish River High School Principal William Latson. Last year’s revelation that Latson, while at Spanish River in 2018, had refused to acknowledge the reality of the Holocaust made international news.
Last October, the board had upheld Superintendent Donald Fennoy’s recommendation to fire Latson. Fennoy based his recommendation, however, not on Latson’s Holocaust-related email comments to a Spanish River parent but on allegedly poor communication during the controversy and other issues. The board seemingly fired him for the wrong reason.
Latson appealed, urged on by Art Johnson, a former county school superintendent who also had been principal at Spanish River. An administrative law judge ruled for Latson, saying that while his removal from Spanish River was justified and he had deserved a reprimand, his conduct did not meet the standard for termination. The judge said the board should reinstate him as a principal and give him the $152,000 in back pay that the district withheld, beginning when he was suspended.
Brill contends that the investigation of Latson was “egregiously mishandled.” Case documents reflect confusion and poor communication among school district officials. Brill said one option at the time was simply not to renew Latson’s contract. Then the board learned that Latson had just received a new, three-year contract.
Even that doesn’t matter to Brill. She believes that Latson “broke his contract” because the comments essentially violated state law that schools teach about the Holocaust. After the Palm Beach Post reported the email exchange, Latson tried to blame the parent. The emails proved that Latson had lied.
Although the district’s outside labor attorney stated that he disagreed with the judge’s finding that the conduct did not justify a firing, he recommended that the board accept the ruling. Brill still voted no. So did Frank Barbieri, the board chairman, and Erica Whitfield. Said Brill, “I am outraged.”
In an email to the parent, 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.” Brill and others read that—and still do—as Holocaust denial. Latson defended himself by claiming that he had to stay “neutral,” despite that state law, “because not all of our parents have the same beliefs.”
Brill is Jewish. As she points out, however, five million non-Jews perished in the Holocaust along with six million Jews. Indeed, the Holocaust was a crime against humanity, not just one people. This controversy also comes during an unprecedented attack on truth and science in this country.
It also comes as board members have strongly criticized Fennoy for poor preparation as schools prepared to reopen. Fennoy’s evaluvation is on the agenda for next Wednesday’s board meeting. Brill also noted that any of the four board members who voted to reinstate Latson could bring up the issue at that same meeting and switch their vote.
“We’ve gotten hundreds of emails” since last week, Brill said. Latson’s refusal to apologize has further inflamed his critics. Brill is right. This seems far from over.
New golf course as a healing step?
Could the Boca Raton Resort & Club’s donation of its golf course to the city solve more than just the immediate problem of finding a new public course?
That deeper problem would be the testy—to put it mildly—relationship between the city and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District. The standoff over the closed Ocean Breeze course as a replacement for Boca Raton Municipal had especially strained that relationship.
With MSD Partners and Northview Hotel Group giving the city their Boca Country Club course, however, there will be no more arguing over cost and design. The city will acquire the course in a year. Presumably, the city will shift the employees who work at Boca Municipal to the new course. If the sale of Boca Municipal’s 200 acres to GL Homes closes as planned, the city will have $65 million.
City Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke spoke for her colleagues when she called the donation “wonderful.” But what about the district board members?
Steve Engel said the city gets a course “that’s up and running, as opposed to having to rebuild one. It removes a major obstacle to future collaboration on other projects and provides an opportunity for a reset between the district and the city.”
Craig Ehrnst called it “pretty good deal for the city and the residents.” Referring to the roughly 200 acres of the Ocean Breeze site, Ehrnst said, “I am hopeful that that we can now all come together and create something great for the area.” Board member Erin Wright agreed. “We could build an awesome park there. I’m excited.”
Not all the feelings are pleasant. Ehrnst and Bob Rollins noted that the district spent about $1.6 million for design work and demolition on a course that will not be built. The district also spends about $350,000 to maintain the Ocean Breeze site, which is in the Boca Teeca community.
Rollins added that he is “disappointed in how it played out,” with the city keeping secret its discussions with the resort. “I understand the need to keep quiet,” Rollins said, “but I thought the district could have played a role. Rollins did note, however, that he has played Boca Country Club and called it “unquestionably better than Boca Municipal.”
Chairman Susan Vogelgesang is the board’s outlier. She said that Boca Country Club “does not have the complete range of amenities” that the district’s preferred design for the Ocean Breeze site envisioned. “According to a golf pro friend who does not have any ‘skin in the game,’ the driving range (at Boca Country Club) is inadequate for long-range hitters.
“I just know if the district had done this same deal behind closed doors without public input, we would have been roasted over the coals—and rightly so.”
Rollins and Vogelgesang noted that women’s leagues enjoy playing the short course at Boca Municipal. There is no equivalent at Boca Country Club. Rollins suggested that one could go at Ocean Breeze.
City Councilman Andy Thomson had been the most vocal critic of the district’s Ocean Breeze ambitions. He said that discussions with the resort about Boca Country Club started almost a year ago. He seemed reluctant to consider a short course on the property. Thomson noted that the city already has such a facility at Red Reef Park.
After the council makes the acquisition official at its Wednesday meeting, many decisions will await. In addition to the course and clubhouse, the deal includes a pool and tennis center, all on 167 acres. The city will need to hold outreach sessions with Boca Country Club homeowners.
Thomson believes that those homeowners—who live outside the city—will like the deal. They will retain access to the course and no longer will have to pay a membership fee. They will be treated as city residents. Their price to play also will decrease, and they will get “preferential” tee times.
The city can treat the course differently than the resort. To the resort, it was an expense that detracted from the focus of a for-profit operation. To the city, it will be an amenity. Golf course operations now come close to breaking even, but the course doesn’t need to make money.
This deal makes sense for the city and the district. A good deal could get even better if it leads to new cooperation.
Delray makes the grade
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has rated the city a 6 on its Community Rating System for flood prevention. On this scale, lower is better. Communities start out at 10 and can rise to 1, which few manage to accomplish.
Each higher ranking, however, means a break for residents who obtain coverage through the National Flood Insurance Program. The new grade will mean a 20 percent cut in Delray Beach. Because the program is heavily subsidized, that will mean a relatively modest $630,000 savings citywide. If Congress begins to deregulate the program, however, those savings could increase.
Given Delray Beach’s chronic tidal flooding, the rating is particularly impressive. Boca Raton has a 7 rating, giving residents a 15 percent discount.
Two more council candidates
I had reported that Constance Scott will run for the open seat of term-limited Boca Raton City Councilman Jeremy Rodgers. There are now two other candidates.
Yvette Drucker also has filed paperwork to run for Rodgers’ Seat C. Drucker has served on the city’s education committee and historic preservation board and is on the board of Florence Fuller Child Development Centers.
Also filing paperwork is Bernard Korn. He has run two failed races for mayor as a fringe candidate.
Drucker is a first-time candidate. Scott held the seat from 2009 to 2015, when term limits kicked in. She works as director of local relations for Florida Atlantic University.
The election is March 9. Qualifying begins on Dec. 1 and ends on Dec. 9.