by David Silverberg
A disturbing pattern of cronyism and sweetheart dealing appears to be emerging from the war on education by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and the Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement in Florida.
While much of the public and media attention has been focused on issues of academic freedom and the DeSantis-MAGA anti-woke, anti-public education crusade, when it comes to practically implementing this agenda at the operational level, instances of lucrative deals for politically-connected, ideological loyalists of questionable qualifications seem to indicate a trend.
What is more, the trend is not confined to any single level of education. DeSantis is clearly attempting to bring the state’s higher education establishment to heel. In last year’s elections he also sought to dominate elementary and secondary education at the county level through school board endorsements.
The results on the ground have been questionable candidate searches, exorbitant salary bumps and an opportunistic feeding frenzy. Where at one time academia was seen as an ivory tower, in Florida it is becoming a feeding trough.
Three instances illustrate this trend and its consequences. One is at the premier state university level and the appointment of Ben Sasse at the University of Florida. Another is at the state college level, the ouster of the existing president and subsequent appointment of Richard Corcoran as president of New College. A third is at the county school board level and the appointment of James Molenaar as attorney for the Collier County Board of Education.
Ben Sasse and the University of Florida
Last November trustees voted to appoint Ben Sasse, former conservative Republican senator from Nebraska, as president of the University of Florida in Gainesville.
Sasse was the only announced finalist, although there were reportedly a dozen others. Trustees defended keeping the other candidates secret in compliance with a newly-passed state law allowing such concealment.
“The bottom line is if we had run a process that required more than one finalist to be publicly disclosed, none of the top 12 people we interviewed would have stayed,” trustee Chair Mori Hosseini told the publication Politico. “It’s that simple.”
Because of the secrecy there was no way to confirm that a dozen finalists had in fact been considered. University faculty held a vote of no confidence in the trustees’ personnel search.
According to Forbes magazine, Sasse’s 5-year contract provides a base salary of $1 million per year with annual 4 percent increases if he meets certain performance goals. He will receive an additional retention bonus of $200,000 per year if he stays the entire length of the contract. He will also receive annual 15 percent “performance bonuses,” contingent on meeting particular goals, including adoption of a strategic plan with short-term and long-term objectives.
Executive benefits include payment of moving expenses, a 15 percent retirement benefit paid by the university, tuition remission for any of his immediate family members who might enroll at the University of Florida, and health, life and disability insurance paid by the university. In addition, “reasonable business, travel and entertainment expenses (including professional dues and meetings) incurred in his capacity as President of the University shall be reimbursed.”
The contract requires Sasse to live in the Dasburg President’s House on the campus. The University pays “the cost of hazard and liability insurance, utilities (including internet service), housekeeping, home office facilities, equipment and services, landscaping, maintenance, and grounds-keeping, security, repair and maintenance of The Dasburg President’s House facility.”
The contract can be extended by mutual agreement and after its expiration Sasse will be eligible to work as a full time faculty member at the university.
Sasse at least presented a variety of qualifications for the position: in addition to having served as senator he had a bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a doctorate from Yale. He previously presided over Midland University, a private Lutheran university in Fremont, Neb., that was home to about 1,600 students—in contrast to the University of Florida with 60,000 students.
Students, faculty and alumni protested the appointment when it was made and then demonstrated in person on the day it was implemented. On Feb. 6, the day he arrived on campus to take office, they presented a variety of demands that included protection of academic freedom, retention of tenure and support for inclusivity, equity and diversity.
Richard Corcoran and New College
New College is a small, state-run liberal arts college of about 698 students and about 90 faculty, located in Sarasota.
In early January DeSantis appointed six new members to its 13-member board of trustees with a seventh new member appointed by the Florida Board of Governors. Most of the new appointees came from ideologically conservative or religious academic backgrounds.
On Jan. 31 at an online Zoom meeting, the board fired the existing president, Patricia Okker, and appointed Richard Corcoran as interim president.
Corcoran, a Republican, is a former Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and represented the state’s 37th House District, covering Pasco County. He served as state Commissioner of Education from 2019 until last year.
Earlier in his career he also served in a variety of staff positions including as an aide to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). In that position his spending of Republican Party money drew criticism, including $400,000 on charter plane flights, $29,000 at the Capital Grille restaurant in Tampa and $1,000 for cufflinks.
In one memorable instance he dropped $8,000 on a single meal at a restaurant known as The French Laundry in Napa Valley, California.
Corcoran’s tenure as Commissioner of Education was not free of taint. Last January the Department of Education under Corcoran came under scrutiny from its own Inspector General when it apparently deliberately steered a $2.5 million consulting contract to a company linked to Corcoran. The bidding was open for only a week and only MTG Consulting, the company run by a Corcoran colleague, was pre-approved to bid on it. However, when two of Corcoran’s deputies and a member of the state Board of Education filed a competing bid, the contracting process came under investigation for a conflict of interest, the aides resigned and MTG was denied the contract.
The contract was to help Jefferson County get its schools in order and would have been paid for with federal COVID relief funds.
“I’m just going to be honest with you. It’s money,” Bill Brumfield, a Jefferson County School Board member told the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s money and it’s politics, and they are just trying to kick Jefferson County around again like a bunch of little country bumpkins sitting over there and knowing nothing.” Corcoran defended the contract and said his department had followed the letter and spirit of the law.
The DeSantis administration chose not to take further action on the matter after the aides resigned. The Inspector General did not rule on whether the bids were illegal or were conflicts of interest.
Corcoran’s own academic credentials consist of his dropping out of the University of Florida but receiving his bachelor’s degree from St. Leo University, a small, private Catholic university in St. Leo, Fla., and his Juris Doctor law degree from Regent University, a small, Christian school in Virginia Beach, Va.
The trustees’ firing of Okker, who has a doctorate and spent her career in academia, and hiring of Corcoran was done by a vote of 11 to 1 in a single, swift action before any other attendees at the meeting had a chance to speak or comment.
Under Corcoran’s contract he receives an annual salary of $699,000, which is $394,000 more than Okker’s $305,000. He also receives an $84,000 housing allowance, the top range of such allowances for people in the position in Florida.
James Molenaar and the Collier County Board of Education
In Collier County, Florida, a MAGA-dominated School Board’s search for its own attorney resulted in a grab for a lucrative contract by a favored candidate and allegations of Sunshine law violations, improper communications, cronyism and misuse of documents.
On Election Day, Nov. 8, 2022, three MAGA candidates won election to the Collier County Board of Education, constituting a majority of the five-member board.
The new chair, Kelly Lichter, had served on the board from 2014 to 2018 during which she clashed with the school district’s sitting attorney, Jonathan Fishbane. She suggested that the School Board needed its own attorney, separate from the school district.
Accordingly, on Dec. 7, just before the Christmas and New Year holidays, the Board approved the idea, set out the duties, responsibilities and qualifications and advertised the position for only one week. It also established a salary of $180,000 per year for the position.
Four applicants responded: Cassius Borel, Michael Fasano, Kevin Pendley and James Molenaar. Pendley, with 32 years as a practicing lawyer, had the most school-related experience and was serving as the Volusia County School Board attorney.
Molenaar, with 27 years of experience, had served as senior legal counsel for the Collier County Clerk of Courts and Comptroller until 2020. That election year he filed papers to run against his boss, Crystal Kinzel, clerk of the courts. He was fired the day after filing and subsequent court cases revealed an illicit sexual relationship with a colleague. Ultimately, he lost the election despite being endorsed by conservative political activist and grocer Alfie Oakes.
During the Board’s search phase, Molenaar e-mailed three of the Board members, offering to meet privately, which Board member Erick Carter (District 4) thought might be a violation of a “cone of silence” period.
Molenaar submitted his own proposed contract to Lichter on Dec. 7, the day the School Board agreed to the idea of hiring its own attorney.
Instead of the $180,000 annual salary proposed by the Board, Molenaar proposed $195,000. He also proposed “a performance-based merit system through which the Employee [Molenaar] shall be eligible for a merit adjustment upon successful completion of measurable goals and objectives to be completed” of up to 10 percent of his base salary.
He would get a $650 per month ($7,800 per year) car allowance “to cover gas, mileage, and maintenance.”
In order to work at home, he would be provided “at the Board’s sole expense, at his choosing a laptop computer and a device(s) for scanning, copying, printing and faxing for use at his residence.” In addition, he would get $225 per month ($2,700 per year) for other technology materials including internet connections as he shall consider necessary to carry out his work as Employee.”
He would also get a cell phone “of the make and model of his choosing” and the service to support it.
The Board would agree to pay his professional dues and subscriptions, his business travel and car rentals outside the county, “travel associated with attending conferences, conventions, meeting[s]” and continuing education and “transportation fares, meals, mileage, lodging, taxi, or ride share fares, parking fees, and communication expenses.”
In order to join community and civic associations he would get an additional stipend of $1,500 per year.
With the additions—not including bonuses and benefits—Molenaar’s proposal came to $212,100 per year.
The night before the Jan. 23 meeting to decide on the attorney, Kelly Lichter’s husband, Nick, sent an e-mail to Board members:
“I am unable to make tomorrow’s meeting, and I can’t make a public comment related to this issue, so here you go. I have been watching the ‘fake news’ hysteria surrounding my wife and Jim Molenar [as spelled], a candidate for the attorney position. This is right from the left’s playbook. They falsely accuse people of doing the very things they themselves are guilty of doing. What is even more incredible, is the fact that the leftists are all pushing Kevin Pendley. Kevin Pendley has deep ties to local attorney Grant Fridkin, a local attorney who maxed out contributions to Jen Mitchell’s campaign in the most recent election. In looking into Kevin Pendley’s own campaign contributions, he has given money to Byron Donalds, the same person that tried to ‘crush’ my wife in this school board race.
“If you want the fox guarding the hen house, then hire Kevin Pendley. He may look good on paper, but he would be a disaster as your board attorney,” Lichter wrote.
At the Jan. 23 meeting three candidates were interviewed, Fasano having dropped out. Each was asked the same 10 questions with no follow-ups or other questions allowed.
At the meeting School District attorney Fishbane stated that “There have been a lot of comments concerning the process that forms the foundation of this meeting.” This included questions concerning “Sunshine Law violations, back door communications, wrongful favoring of a particular candidate [i.e., Molenaar], and wrongful usage of documents.” However, said Fishbane, his review had revealed no improprieties.
About 20 members of the public spoke at the meeting, most favoring Pendley.
The Board then ranked the candidates and ultimately voted 3 to 2 to hire Molenaar.
With these proposals becoming public and opposition building to his appointment, on Feb. 2 Molenaar withdrew his application to be School Board attorney—sort of. He did it in an e-mail to Andrew Brown, the school district’s senior director of human resources and it became public on Feb. 6.
But then, on Feb. 10 he complained that the human resources director had rescinded his application without affording him due process. He accused Valerie Wenrich, the assistant superintendent of human resources, of abusing her authority, saying she had “wrongfully relied on the outcry made from a few vocal minority who do not support the agenda of the new majority school board members and our governor” in canceling his application.
On Feb. 13, in an address during the public comments portion of a School Board meeting he said he was waiting for the District to process his paperwork so he could begin work as the attorney the Board had voted to approve.
At this point it is unclear whether Molenaar is in or out, whether his hiring is being processed or a new search is about to begin. Some clarity may be shed at the next School Board meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, March 7.
(For excellent, detailed coverage of the Collier County School Board attorney controversy, from which most of this account is drawn, see Sparker’s Soapbox, an insightful local blog and its stories, “Collier School Board Attorney Search,” Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. To see ongoing coverage and commentary on the county School Board in general, see Jen Mitchell’s Collier School Board Resource page on Facebook.)
Analysis: From education to enrichment
To date, in practical terms, the DeSantis-MAGA war on education in Florida and independent thought appears to have been expressed in hiring ideological loyalists.
However, this is likely only the beginning. The next phase is likely to be expressed in contracting.
The Florida educational establishment, at all levels, is a source of millions of dollars in purchased goods and services, ranging in everything from food, to textbooks, to operations, to maintenance to construction.
If the current apparent pattern of favoritism and financial reward holds, the next phase of the educational anti-woke war may be manifested in unbalanced contracting as education-related purchases go to favored, ideologically loyal contractors, vendors, friends and allies.
It is beyond the capacity of The Paradise Progressive to monitor every college and university or the state’s 67 counties.
But what can honest Floridians do in a non-election year? Concerned citizens, alert journalists and all Florida taxpayers should watch district schools and state universities for improper hiring and contracting and raise their voices against it when they see it.
In no particular order, improper practices include:
Making hires or writing contracts narrowly tailored to favor particular individuals or companies in what should be broad competitions.
Conducting proceedings, searches or evaluations in secret, possibly in violation of Florida Sunshine Laws.
Closing or excluding public comment in public proceedings like school board or trustee meetings, or delaying the public’s input until after a decision is made.
Allowing candidates or vendors to write their own contracts rather than using neutral, standardized contracts drafted by the hiring or contracting party.
Failing to provide reasonable time periods for hiring or contracting responses or making them suddenly or abruptly, especially at inconvenient or unreasonable times (for example, issuing a request for proposals after 5 pm on a Friday with a deadline of 9 am on a Monday so that only a single competitor who is already alerted can respond).
Providing favored applicants and contractors exorbitant or unusual compensation out of line with common standards or previous practice.
Abruptly dropping or disqualifying candidates or contractors from competing without explanation or justification.
Elevating obviously unqualified candidates and contractors over ones that have obviously superior qualifications and experience.
Using personal smears and ideological litmus tests against potential hires or contractors and basing awards on political loyalties.
Ultimately, Florida, its people and its schools will be the losers if these practices dominate—and Floridians will not just lose intellectually, they will lose financially as taxpayer money is siphoned off to cronies and co-conspirators.
As it is, the anti-woke jihad in education is an attempt to snuff out independent thought and free academic enquiry. It is an effort to legislate thinking rather than have freely expressed ideas compete in an open intellectual marketplace. In the past it was believed the best thoughts would win through reason and logic. That is not the DeSantis-MAGA approach and it already seems to be bringing cronyism and corruption in its wake.
Florida education is heading to “enrichment” but not the kind that enlightens minds—rather, the kind that just lines pockets.
Special to Big Mouth Media from The Paradise Progressive. Originally posted on March 3, 2023.