By Carrie Seidman, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Feb 17, 2023.
I’m sure I am not alone in being stunned by the compensation package approved at a recent special meeting of the New College of Florida board for Richard Corcoran, appointed as the school’s interim president following the Jan. 31 ouster of Patricia Okker.
Corcoran, who will take over Feb. 27 and hold the job until Sept.1, 2024 (or until a permanent president is picked) was awarded $699,00 in annual salary – more than double Okker’s compensation – as well as more than $200,000 annually in housing and car allowances and retirement compensation. He could also receive a bonus of up to 15% of his annual salary for achieving certain goals.
That means the former Florida Republican House speaker, education commissioner and Gov. Ron DeSantis ally stands to make $1 million or more if he remains in the job the full 18 months. A portion of that amount will, of necessity, come from funds at the college’s foundation – ironic given that the governor’s rational for his radical makeover of the board and the college itself is its financial deficit.
For that kind of money, you might think you’d be getting a brilliant academician with a wealth of success in the public education arena, a history of honest, effective leadership, and a whistle-clean ethical slate. Instead, Corcoran – an attorney and career politician with no background as an educator – comes with a reputation for aggressive efforts to undermine public education and promote privatization, failed educational interventions, political cronyism and questionable moral judgment.
His tenure as House speaker was marked by multiple education-related overhauls designed to increase school choice, expand tax-credit scholarships for private schools, decertify teachers’ unions and create private “Schools of Hope” to entice charter school companies to replace public schools.
As education commissioner, in conjunction with current Education Commissioner Manny Diaz, Corcoran engineered in 2017 the full takeover and privatization of Jefferson County Schools, a rural, majority-Black district outside the state capitol. Over the next five years, third grade reading proficiency in that district fell from 41% to 19%.
Corcoran remained at the helm during the scandal that followed, when a consulting company led by a colleague of his received preferential treatment during a bidding process on a $2.5 million contract to take over operation of the schools. Ultimately, the Jefferson County Schools were returned to public control.
In 2021, Corcoran applied to become president of Florida State University, but failed to make the finalist list. (It’s interesting to note that the current FSU president, who oversees 46,000 students, makes about the same salary Corcoran is being offered to oversee 700; that’s a ratio of $24 per student vs. $1,000 per student).
By the time he resigned his position in May 2022, Corcoran had presided over a continuing drop in Florida 3rd to 8th grade reading and math scores representing one of the worst slides in the nation.
Corcoran, who returned to the consulting and lobbying work he continues today, was quickly appointed by DeSantis to the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system.
Though none of this information was shared by the trustees, it was dually noted by members of the public who were allowed 60 seconds each to present an audio-only message during the Zoom meeting. Among them was Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orange County), who referenced both DeSantis’ accusation of student indoctrination at New College and Corcoran’s past promotions of the governor’s educational reforms, including the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill and the “Stop W.O.K.E.” legislation.
“For a board that says it doesn’t want to indoctrinate students,” said Eskamani, “you just hired the Indoctrinator in Chief.”
Added Robin Williams: “Making Corcoran president of a public college is akin to making the Grim Reaper director of your local hospital.”
These comments, scheduled for the beginning of the meeting, were instead postponed to the end thanks to a request by Board Trustee Ron Cristaldi, who wanted to vote but apparently had more important places to be thereafter. Their effect was moot given that trustees had already approved the compensation package. Like Corcoran’s nomination, it was a done deal before the meeting ever began.
Since the board is required to operate in the “sunshine,” this leads me to believe the New College of Florida trustees have an uncanny gift for telepathic communication. That they would vote with no deliberation to bestow so bounteous a sum of taxpayer money – on a man who has never spent a day as an educator – made me realize how naïve it was to expect anything else under the state’s current leadership.
This isn’t even about New College anymore . . . or at least, not just about New College. As new Chair Debra Jenks, a DeSantis appointee put it, they were looking for someone “battle tested and ready on Day One” to carry forth the governor’s agenda on a national scale, “leading the conversation on what higher education is now and what it should be.”
Thus, on the day after the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LVII, Board Trustee Matthew Spalding – who had nominated Corcoran in the first place – said he believed his longtime friend would be “a great quarterback to get us forward, to get us to our Super Bowl.”
Image Credits: Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times