Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Destroying Tenure Tip of Poisoned Iceberg

This piece by Dennis Maley is reprinted from The Bradenton Times in full, because it offers a clear and important overview of the political landscape right now; developer-driven, and serving a far right-wing agenda. The original piece can be found here.

SCF Trustees Want Respect But Earn Laughter

Dennis Maley
Sunday, Jan 31, 2016

On Tuesday, I went to the State College of Florida’s Board of Trustees meeting to watch them cast their final vote on abolishing the practice of "continuous contracts," a less-than-tenure protection for a select group of the school’s top educators that is in place, at least partly, to prevent good instructors from being victims of political agendas—though ineffective instructors could and have been removed for cause even after attaining it.

It was no secret how the vote would go, but I wanted to see for myself. A lot of people had contacted me to tell me they had planned to show up to oppose the vote, hoping the trustees would come to their senses and realize that the policy had the potential to be utterly destructive to the quality of education at what has for decades been an exemplary institution of higher ed.

For 40 minutes, former and current professors, students, parents and members of the community gave seething public comment. How could you do this to our beloved school? Why would you deliberately create a policy that had no discernible benefits but a host of obvious negative ones? 

The questions were rhetorical. The speakers knew why, and they let the trustees have an earful on that front as well. This was a political move, orchestrated by a political boss, for political benefit, through a board that is little more than a political conduit.

Millionaire developer Carlos Beruff is one of the most powerful political figures in Manatee and Sarasota Counties. He and his frequent business partner Pat Neal largely control Republican politics in the local area. Aided by a handful of other development interests—Benderson Development, Schroeder Manatee Ranch, etc.—they organize and distribute much of the campaign cash that decides who sits where in local government.

Carlos Beruff
It was Beruff, one of nine trustees for the college, who suggested out of nowhere last fall that the school dump continuous contracts and consider having instructors bid for their jobs, or at least indicate what the least amount of compensation they’d accept would be. Beruff gave no argument as to why it would be in the college’s best interest, beyond a few platitudes equating policies in the business world, with those at the educational institution—a field in which he has no expertise to speak of.

The rest of the board, which is largely made up of other local Republican political types—including several who have their own political ambitions or are married to someone holding or seeking public office—eagerly went along.

Everyone from the college’s president to other institutions of higher learning quickly lampooned the idea. What kind of candidates will we attract when we’re the only college in the state that doesn’t offer the opportunity to achieve continuous contract status? Will the best students want to enroll in a college that clearly doesn’t seek the best instructors?

There was no real dialogue as the plan moved forward over several months. There were no workshops with faculty and the community. There were just a bunch of public comments, limited to a maximum of three minutes each at the beginning of the meetings, followed by a few board comments at the end, defending their decision in vague and hollow terms without bothering to explain it.

That’s because no one has the political courage to give the real reason: Mr. Beruff would like it to be this way, and we would all like to remain chummy with Mr. Beruff and his various political action committees and campaign fundraising devices.

Why does Mr. Beruff want to screw with a highly-successful institution against the advice of those with infinitely more experience and expertise on the subject? My guess is that it has nothing at all to do with SCF or what may or may not be best for it, or even what Beruff himself thinks about the matter. Reforming the liberal education system is a huge pet issue on the far right, one that Governor Scott—who appoints the trustees of Florida’s 28 state colleges—is rather fixated on.

Scott already ended tenure for Florida’s public school teachers in 2011, a promise he made while campaigning the year before. SCF is the first college in the system that he has now appointed a majority of the trustees to their board. I doubt it’s a coincidence that it’s also the first to take this step, or, for that matter, that it was one of his close political allies who carried the water for him on it. Why is Scott so concerned with this issue? Because it is a popular one for him to laud to the far right as he tries to advance his political career, possibly in a 2018 Senate run. I wrote more on the ideological component of this issue in a previous column that can be found here.

The question on so many minds on Tuesday, however, was why were so many people following Beruff. That goes back to the point about political ambitions. The chair of the board of trustees is Ed Bailey. When Bailey ran for Manatee Supervisor of Elections as a Republican in 2012, Beruff was his biggest supporter, giving maximum contributions from multiple LLCs set up for his Medallion Homes operation. Bailey’s wife is currently running for school board in Manatee County.

SCF Trustee Lori Moran is married to Mike Moran, a Republican running for the Sarasota County Commission. Moran has also received a number of contributions from LLCs under Beruff’s umbrella and the rest of his hefty campaign account is largely funded by a cadre of influential local development interests. Another trustee, Robert Wyatt, is the treasurer of the Republican Party of Sarasota. Wyatt had planned to run for the Florida House this year when it looked like incumbent Ray Pilon would be redistricted, but stepped aside when Pilon remained in district 72. Clearly, he has political ambitions.

Eric Robinson is what’s known as a bag man in local politics, though to be fair, Robinson usually carries much bigger bags than the term typically implies. A Venice-based accountant, Robinson is the go-to treasurer for local Republican candidates who’ve received the blessing of the local development cartel.

Even more importantly, Robinson is often chosen to manage some of the biggest shadow PACs in state politics, expertly using technically-legal sleights of hand to obscure the money trail, blocking the intended transparency of such contributions, while often making it impossible to determine who exactly has funded nasty attack ads. He’s built a profitable little niche in this role and is obviously intent on staying tight with the people who provide the beans he counts.

Robinson himself is running for the Sarasota County School Board this year, and his campaign war chest is a veritable Who’s Who of the local development establishment. His wife is Christine Robinson, an incumbent on the Sarasota County Commission. Commissioner Robinson, who came under fire when she took the job as head of a special interest group that routinely lobbies the board she serves on for pro-development issues, will be forced out by term limits at the end of this year. She too has benefited significantly throughcontributions from Beruff and the other local developers.

As you can see, there’s plenty of incentive for those sorts of people to be thought well of by Beruff, while demonstrating that they are extremely receptive to whatever ideas he might have by not even attempting to discuss them before falling in line, as was the case with continuous contracting. And even if they aren’t able to get Beruff behind their ambitions, they surely know that it would be even more unwise to encourage him to be standing in the way of them. As much as Beruff can propel a willing surrogate to victory, he’s even more adept at knocking down enemies.

In 2012, Beruff trained his sights on 22-year Manatee County Commissioner and TBT publisher Joe McClash. McClash was a socially-conservative Republican but ran afoul of Beruff’s litmus tests at two points. While he’d consistently been pro-growth, McClash was a staunch believer in smart growth policies and the idea that new growth should pay for itself. He also saw our environmental resources as an important component to an economy dependent on tourism and migration, as well as a key quality of life component for current citizens.

McClash was rarely against a development in general, but when it came time to ask for permission to destroy wetlands that got in the way of adding a few extra houses, amending the county comp plan to increase density in rural areas that lacked the infrastructure to accommodate it, or increasing development intensity in floodplains or evacuation zones that could affect public safety, McClash was often the lone voice of dissent.

Of course, he almost never got his way. Beruff and other developers had stacked the board with a majority of commissioners who would do as they were told, but his mere calling attention to the issues was enough to inspire Beruff to fund one of the most expensive and vitriolic attack campaigns in Manatee County history, which you can read about here. McClash lost the seat by 494 votes, out of more than 25,000 cast, and Betsy Benac, a development consultant Beruff sponsored for election, was able to win the countywide seat.

Beruff also spent heavily on getting and keeping District 1 Commissioner Larry Bustle in office. Bustle will retire at the end of this year, and a potential candidate speaking under the condition of anonymity said they were told not to bother running for the seat, as the development cartel had already anointed former State Rep. Ron Reagan as their guy.
Reagan has already received several max donations from SMR related entities. SMR-related interests also paid for Vanessa Baugh’s East Manatee seat in 2012, and Pat Neal and company have sprinkled money over several campaigns in both counties to make sure their county commissions continue to see things the same way as developers.

When a Manatee County School Board seat was vacated last summer, it was Neal and Beruff who did the vetting of nearly two dozen applicants who wanted the governor’s appointment to the seat. The timing was crucial, as that board would soon be voting to reinstate impact fees, which had been inexplicably abated since 2009.
The developers tapped John Colon, who’d challenged Baugh for the county commission seat in 2012 with strong support from Beruff's LLCs. Unsurprisingly, Colon was the most vocal advocate for not having developers pay the impact fees prescribed in a taxpayer-funded study that detailed their need. 

It’s not just the elected officials who can help the developers. Some of the boards have considerable power, like Swiftmud, our regional water management board. Until recently, Beruff also served on its board—again surrounded mostly by those who seemed eager to appease him. On the same day he resigned, Beruff motioned and voted for the approval of a permit that would allow Neal to destroy high-quality wetlands for a development on Perico Island.

When Neal goes before Governor Scott and his cabinet—who have final say on land use disputes since the governor gutted the Department of Community Affairs in 2011—he’s arguing his case in front of very friendly faces. Neal has been very generous in fundraising for both Scott and Ag Commissioner Adam Putnam, who quickly ruled in his favor on the Robinson Farms issue, even after an Administrative Law Judge’s recommended order was to do the opposite.

If these boards and bodies seem incestuous, that’s because they are. It’s all part of a game where the deck is stacked in favor of those who grease the skids to keep the gravy train rolling. When Neal’s wife resigned as a trustee from SCF in late October, the governor replaced her with Peter Logan, who happens to be the President of Beruff’s company, Medallion Homes. Perhaps more than any other trustee, Logan definitely has reasons not to rock the boat when it comes to Beruff's wishes.
So, there you have it teachers, students, parents and community members. It isn’t about education. It isn’t about efficiency. It isn’t even about the State College of Florida. It’s about politics—which is why when Wyatt suggested with a straight face to SCF President Dr. Carol Probstfeld that now that this matter is behind them, he would hope she could get the faculty to start showing the board morerespect, the room literally burst into laughter. 

Wyatt looked genuinely hurt and perplexed as to why they were all laughing at him, but the answer was simple. The SCF Board of Trustees is nothing but a bad joke. If he wanted the respect of a community of highly-competent educators, he should have earned it by standing up for common sense and voting against the new policy, or at least forcing a discussion on a meritless plan that wouldn’t have stood up to debate.

Instead, the board—every single one of them this time—showed political cowardice, something I’ve yet to see inspire respect from anyone.

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