New College Board of Trustees Gives New President Lucrative Contract
On Monday afternoon, the board of trustees of New College of Florida (NCF) held a special meeting over Zoom and voted to approve a contract for Richard Corcoran as interim president of the school.
To recap, on Jan. 31, the newly appointed board terminated president Patricia Okker and replaced her with Corcoran, former Florida Speaker of the House and Florida Education Commissioner. Seventeen parents, students and supporters of New College had planned to address the board during public comment to advocate against hiring Corcoran before the board voted, but because board vice-chair Ron Christaldi could only stay for 30 minutes, new chair Debra Jenks moved the public comments to the end of the special meeting.
Jenks opened the meeting by citing Florida Statute 1004.32. It is New College’s mission and goal "to provide a quality education to students of high ability who, because of their ability, deserve a program of study that is both demanding and stimulating,” she said, quoting the statute. She then added that NCF's new board intends to fulfill that legislative mandate—and that the previous board had caused the school to “stray from its reputation” as the residential liberal arts honors college of the State of Florida, despite the fact that it consistently places highly on U.S. News & World Report's annual ranking of the best schools in Florida.
“[New College] has been known until now as a soft-skills institution with no real notable contribution to Florida’s higher education system or workforce,” Jenks said. “That is not acceptable to us.”
Jenks explained that she believes Corcoran is the right hire to help the school. "He has a background in education and political ties to help us secure funding,” she said. "He is a forward-facing person and has the qualities and experience to be the leader that we need to operate this school.”
A motion to confirm the contract for Corcoran was made and then seconded. The board voted 11-1 to approve the contract, with Corcoran's annual salary at $699,000 ($394,000 more than Okker's, which was $305,000).
The only board member to vote against the contract was student body president Grace Keenan. Prior to the vote, Keenan brought up several concerns regarding Corcoran and his contract—specifically, the increase in salary. Keenan noted that one of the criticisms levied at New College was that it was in financial straits. Why, she asked, would it make sense to increase the president’s salary by nearly $400,000? And would doing so require other staff salaries to increase in turn?
Board member Matthew Lepinski brought up the yearly housing allowance in the contract. On top of the salary, the contract provides $84,000 for Corcoran for housing. “This is the upper end of housing allowance,” Lepinski said. He said he looked at other housing allowances provided to school presidents throughout the state and found that they ranged from $24,000 to $84,00.
Keenan also voiced concern over violations of Florida’s Sunshine Law, which provides right of access to governmental proceedings at both the state and local levels. “Corcoran’s hiring gives the appearance that the board was doing business behind closed doors,” Keenan said, adding that she did not think it was appropriate that other board members referred to Corcoran as their “friend” prior to the vote and that it could look bad for New College and its board's own credibility. Finally, she asked that the board consider more than just one candidate. “I think it would be smart to look at other options,” she said.
Christaldi asked if Corcoran's contract had been reviewed, to which Jenks replied that she'd personally reviewed the contract and that the pay scale was warranted.
“I am 1,000 percent comfortable with what’s in this contract,” Jenks said. “Once we get the interim president in, we are still required to do an extensive search.”
The only board member to address Keenan’s concerns regarding the potential Sunshine Law violations was Matthew Spalding. Spalding acknowledged he spoke with Corcorcan before the Board of Trustees meeting last month. “I did call my friend Richard Corcoran, who I have known a long time,” Spalding said. “I think it’s perfectly appropriate. A friend is actually a highly valued thing.” Spalding then pointed out that he watched the Super Bowl the night before and noted how important having a quarterback is. “I’m very happy that I can call him a friend of mine, a friend to many of us. He will do a great job,” said Spalding.
When it was time for public comment, the speakers were not happy. All but one voiced disapproval of Corcoran. They were upset that the vote happened before the board would hear them.
“It’s ridiculous to proceed without hearing your speakers first,” one speaker said. “How you can say that we are in financial straits, then pay [Corcoran] this much? It’s not fiscally responsible." She also echoed Keenan's concerns about potential Sunshine Law violations. “It indicates that there was some discussion prior to the meeting.”
Another speaker declared that the phone call between Spalding and Corcoran should be public record and that the board members were “bootlickers and grifters […] throwing taxpaying money to your friend.”
Yet another called the hiring of Corcoran a “mafia bust out” and said that Corcoran and board member Christopher Rufo were “education gangsters” who make money off of hate.
State Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) called Cocoran's hiring of Corcoran “a hilarious open grift” and added that Florida State University passed on making Corcoran president because he wasn’t qualified.
Others brought up Corcoran’s time as Commissioner of Education and his privatization of Jefferson County’s schools (he later released the county from state oversight, albeit with several caveats). One commenter claimed that, under Corcoran’s control, “third grade reading proficiency dropped from 41 percent to 19 percent.” Another commenter brought up the corruption scandal surrounding Corcoran and Jefferson County, in which the state Department of Education attempted to give a multimillion-dollar consulting contract to a company with ties to Corcoran.
However, when the public comment section was over, the board seemed unfazed. “Our business has concluded, and we can be adjourned,” Jenks said.