Thursday, June 6, 2024

School Board to Decide on Latson Firing, and an Update on Wildflower Park

The Palm Beach County School Board will decide Wednesday whether to fire the former Spanish River High School principal who generated so much controversy with his comments about the Holocaust.

In an April 2018 email exchange with a parent concerned about Spanish River’s compliance with that state law requiring schools to teach the Holocaust, William Latson wrote, “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.”

Latson added that he allows information to be presented and allows “students and parents to make decisions about it.” Latson, who is African-American, said he had the same policy for the topic of slavery.

After news reports last July of that exchange, Superintendent Donald Fennoy removed Latson from his job at Spanish River but retained him as a district employee. The controversy, however, went nationwide. Politicians from both parties demanded that the board fire Latson. Only the board can do so, at the superintendent’s recommendation. In a memo, Fennoy told board members that there is “just cause” to fire Latson.

The issue was scheduled for previous meetings and then postponed. It’s now on the agenda for Wednesday’s special meeting.

To bolster the case against Latson, School Board Attorney Julie Ann Rico sought an opinion from an outside labor lawyer. In an Oct. 10 letter, Thomas Gonzalez said the board has grounds to fire Latson not so much because he appeared to deny the Holocaust but because he violated that state law on teaching the Holocaust.

Gonzalez acknowledged that the board could not fire Latson because he didn’t support the parent’s “personal crusade.” Latson already received a “private admonishment” for the email messages.

Spanish River High School (Photo by Christiana Lilly)

The problem, Gonzalez wrote, is that Latson’s statements “could be and were read as the statement of an intention not to provide the very education that is mandated, but to allow a student simply to opt out of the instruction because ‘not everyone believes that Holocaust happened.’”

In other words, Latson stated that mandatory Holocaust education could be voluntary because it deals with religion. In fact, Gonzalez wrote, Florida requires that schools teach the Holocaust as a “historical event.”

Latson, Gonzalez added, made things worse by complaining to the Spanish River faculty that Fennoy was reassigning him because of a “lie” by the parent. But the parent didn’t lie about the content of the emails. Gonzalez further said that Latson was “unresponsive” to several attempts to contact him and resolve the dispute.

Latson has support from Art Johnson, the former superintendent who also was principal at Spanish River. Johnson said the firing would be “political expediency.”

If he is fired, Latson could appeal. Such a proceeding could get messy. With this outside recommendation that Latson violated the code of ethics for Florida educators, however, the board probably will risk it.      

Wildflower update 

Boca Raton keeps plodding toward completion of a small but very expensive park.

That would be Wildflower/Silver Palm, the merging of the Wildflower property on the north side of the Palmetto Park Road Bridge and the existing Silver Palm Park on the south side. Kona Gray of EDSA, the city’s waterfront consultant, updated the city council last week.

EDSA, Gray said, is “working diligently” toward completion of the design and is incorporating the many suggestions from the council. The amount of micromanaging is like nothing I’ve seen with other parks.

Wildflower park rendering (Courtesy of City of Boca Raton)

Councilman Jeremy Rodgers wondered last week if the children’s play area is too small. Councilwoman Andrea O’Rourke said, “I would like to be involved” as EDSA finalizes the project.

O’Rourke’s questioning is no surprise. She based her 2017 campaign on opposition to a restaurant on the Wildflower land, which was home to the nightclub of the same name. The city bought the roughly two-acre parcel in 2009 for $7.5 million, intending it for a project that would bring revenue to the city while retaining public access.

Some of the council’s questions were on point. Monica Mayotte heard that the seawalls will be two feet higher, to fortify the park against tidal flooding. Andy Thomson wanted more trash cans. The city will try to lower and beautify the adjacent wall on the property that once was home to Maxwell’s Chop House. The city has asked about buying it, but the owner wants too much money.

Even with the council’s prodding, however, Gray said bids wouldn’t go out until at least spring. Construction could start next fall. “There is no float in this schedule,” Gray cautioned. The timetable also depends on permit approval. The city has approval for the seawalls and is awaiting approval on permits for the “floating islands”— gardens that will complement the project.

When complete, there will be “synergy,” Gray said, between Wildflower on the north and Silver Palm—and the city’s boat launch—on the south. There had better be something. The budget for building Wildflower/Silver Palm is $6.8 million. Then there are EDSA’s costs and the seawall work.

Wildflower Park (Photo by Randy Schultz)

That will mean $15 million-plus for a roughly six-acre park. It will include an “event lawn” and other amenities, but there’s no certainty that it will be the busy gathering spot that backers envision. There’s less certainty that it ever will support what O’Rourke calls a “blueway”—a water taxi ferrying people along the Intracoastal Waterway.

Another issue is security. Can the park “self-police” it self with activities or will drifters populate the park at night? A restaurant, of course, would have provided its own “self-policing” until nearly midnight, every night.

O’Rourke prodded the council to ask the public for names. Wildflower/Silver Palm seems perfectly fine. We already have Lake Wyman, El Rio/Hillsboro.

And who would decide? Mayor Scott Singer noted drily that the Miami Heat sought new naming rights for the American Airlines Arena in Miami. The first offer came from a website dealing in pornography.

It’s been 10 years since the city bought the Wildflower. It will be at least two more years before the park opens. Given the cost, the city and the park’s supporters better make it a very popular place.

The Sackler family

The Palm Beach Post reported last week that a member of the opioid-peddling Sackler family has bought a $7.4 million estate “near” Boca Raton and thus near Delray Beach, which suffered so much from the opioid epidemic.

According to the Post, David Sackler and his wife, Joss, purchased the home through intermediary companies. The Palm Beach County Property Appraiser’s website does not list a residence in David Sackler’s name.

The purchase came just before the bankruptcy of Purdue Pharma, which the Sackler family owns and is the maker of OxyContin. The bankruptcy is part of negotiations toward resolving the many lawsuits against Purdue Pharma.

David and Joss Sackler, an aspiring fashion designer, had lived in Manhattan. The New York Post reported in May on a boycott of Joss Sackler at Fashion Week. According to the paper, that action was part of an “ongoing shunning” of the couple by “city society.”

Moving to an area ravaged by opioid addiction and the resultant heroin epidemic might seem cheeky. This year, however, David Sackler told Vanity Fair that the family is not to blame for the roughly 700,000 opioid-related deaths nationally between 1999 and 2017 and all the families decimated by opioid addiction.

Florida is one of the best states in which to shelter property after a bankruptcy declaration.

Delray chief resigns

A Delray Beach Fire Department division chief has resigned followed his DUI arrest.

On Oct. 17, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper saw one of the department’s Ford Explorers stopped near Gateway Boulevard on Interstate 95. The left tire was gone. There was an alert out for the vehicle.

According to the probable cause affidavit, Hoecherl failed a field sobriety test. The trooper noted Hoecherl’s “slurred speech” and the smell of “an unknown alcoholic beverage. Hoecherl refused a blood test and was charged with misdemeanor DUI.

Three days later, Hoecherl submitted his resignation.

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Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
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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