A vice president for the publishing giant Scholastic Inc. e-mailed Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox with a proposal to sell the district an online training program.
"Thanks John," Wilcox responded on Aug. 24, 2005. "I will read it over this weekend."
In the next sentence, he asked the vice president, John Lent, to score him some Broadway theater tickets. Wilcox planned to be in New York with his wife to speak at Scholastic's annual "superintendents' summit."
"Thanks a million," Wilcox wrote.
Two months later, he heard back from Ernie Fleishman, a top Scholastic executive and a man Wilcox considers a friend and mentor dating back to his days as a Louisiana superintendent.
"Good news on the theatre front," Fleishman wrote. "Tickets for Hairspray on Friday night and Wicked for Sat. night. Look forward to our meeting."
Wilcox paid Scholastic for the tickets, keeping him in line with state ethics laws. But the transaction was a telling example of a lengthy and close relationship between Wilcox and Scholastic that spanned his four-year tenure in Pinellas and culminated with his resignation last month to take a job with the company. He plans to leave the district June 3.
Other examples of the relationship abound in e-mails requested by the St. Petersburg Times after Wilcox announced his departure April 17. Exchanges between Wilcox and Scholastic executives tell the story of a district leader who did not always keep the appearance of an arms-length relationship between a public official and a vendor. The district spends an average of about $1.1-million a year on Scholastic products.
According to e-mails and an interview with Wilcox this week, the superintendent:
•Started talking to Scholastic about a job last year as his troubles with some School Board members began to mount and a narrow 4-3 majority supported his contract extension. He said he received inquiries from headhunters throughout his tenure and spoke to other companies that do business with Pinellas schools about working for them.
•Endorsed Scholastic RED, a training program purchased by the district that aims to help principals and teachers get better reading performance from students. A sales brochure shows Wilcox's photo and quotes him praising the product.
•Has been a paid speaker for the International Center for Leadership in Education, a consulting group that does business with Pinellas schools and is owned by Scholastic.
•Has at times accepted lunches and dinners during his dealings with Scholastic.
•Has used Fleishman's assistant as a source for theater tickets. Wilcox described the practice as a small favor that helped him avoid dealing with will-call windows at New York theaters. He said it was not improper since he paid for the tickets.
"If somebody at the St. Pete Times thinks that little bitty favor curries purchasing, then you guys got way too much time on your hands," Wilcox said, adding a reference to the recent Pinellas property appraiser scandal.
"I get it, but this is no Jim Smith land deal for God sakes."
Kerrie Stillman, a spokesperson for the Florida Commission on Ethics, likened the situation to a lobbyist securing hard-to-get football tickets for a lawmaker. It's allowed if the lawmaker pays for them, she said.
Wilcox said his dealings with Scholastic have been at arms length.
"I don't think I've ever compromised this district in any way," he said. "I think that my relationship with Scholastic over time has been one that's been good for kids, good for teachers, good for our administrators."
While he formally recommends purchases to the School Board, Wilcox said almost all purchasing decisions — including many for Scholastic products — bubble up from lower echelons.
"Go talk to anybody in this organization. If you could find one person that says I've come to them and forced them to buy something, I'll buy your lunch," he said. "If I were trying to use my position to influence people who buy stuff because I had cozy relationships with (Scholastic) then you should hang me out to dry. I've never done that."
Records show Pinellas' spending on Scholastic products under Wilcox ($3.6-million) is similar to previous periods.
The first sentence of Florida's ethics law lays out the reasons for the detailed statutes that follow: "It is essential to the proper conduct and operation of government that public officials be independent and impartial and that public office not be used for private gain other than the remuneration provided by law.''
Wilcox said he saw no problem with endorsing Scholastic RED in the company's sales materials because the district only purchased it one year.
He said he agreed to be a paid speaker this year at two International Center for Leadership in Education conferences before he realized Scholastic bought the center's stock. The purchase was announced on June 8, 2007.
However, the district did business directly with ICLE before that, paying the center more than $360,000 in conference costs and consulting fees since 2003.
State ethics laws prohibit officials from contracting with entities that do business with their agencies. An official can be paid for travel and meal costs but can't accept a speaking fee, said Stillman, the Ethics Commission spokesperson.
At times during the interview, Wilcox said he is always vigilant about conflicts of interest. At other times, however, he acknowledged lapses.
"I've never accepted anything of consequence," he said. "I'd be a liar if I said I haven't gone to dinner somewhere and (Scholastic) picked up the tab. But never anything extravagant."
Florida education laws and School Board policy prohibit district officials from accepting anything of value from a vendor who might directly or indirectly influence a purchase. However, state ethics laws say an official can accept a meal of up to $25. The vendor must report anything between $25 and $100. Anything over $100 is prohibited.
Wilcox said Scholastic provided meals for him and other participants in conferences called "superintendents' summits" at the company's New York headquarters. He said he never attempted to sort out what was spent on his meals.
Scholastic is aware of the pitfalls of selling to public agencies.
In a memo, a company supervisor advised the Florida sales team not to offer meals to public educators or invite them to the superintendents' summits because both could be viewed as an illegal "inducement."
Fleishman forwarded the memo to Wilcox in late 2006, a tense time in Pinellas. Earlier that year, Wilcox had ordered an evaluation of Read 180, a Scholastic product found in 75 Pinellas schools that aims to help struggling readers. The evaluation said many schools had not properly implemented Read 180 and that Scholastic failed to provide adequate technical support.
Wilcox released the evaluation when the School Board objected to a Read 180 upgrade.
Margery Mayer, president of Scholastic Education and a Wilcox friend, flew to Pinellas twice to apologize and lower the upgrade's cost. The publicity hit Scholastic hard. Had he wanted to curry favor with Scholastic, Wilcox argued, he never would have released the Read 180 evaluation.
Wilcox pulled out of the 2006 superintendents' summit, telling Fleishman in an Aug. 24 e-mail that his involvement might be seen as a conflict.
Wilcox apologized to Fleishman, praised Scholastic and said the district would "do what it takes to earn your confidence back." He added a personal note: "I hope that I have not jeopardized our friendship or somehow damaged our relationship because of my lack of real leadership with my Board on this vitally important initiative."
At a time when his board wanted more accountability from Scholastic, was Wilcox more concerned about the friendship than minding the district's interests?
"I see how you get there," Wilcox said. "But I don't think you could really use that to say I wasn't trying to fix it for kids. … I wasn't trying to earn Scholastic's confidence back. It was Ernie's."
Eight months later, in April 2007, Wilcox and Scholastic were talking about the possibility of him working for the company.
He said he'd be foolish not to explore his options as annual contract renewal time approached.
"When you work with people professionally over a period of time and you get to know their skills, their talents, their passions, I think there's a real likelihood that at some point … that you're going to say 'I hope we can work together some day,' " Wilcox said. "I'm not shy about that."
A year later, Wilcox again found himself at Scholastic headquarters talking with Fleishman, Mayer and CEO Dick Robinson — this time for a job interview. The details, including the requisite thank-you notes, had been handled using his school system computer. Several days later he received a formal job offer.
Wilcox speaks with awe about the company credo stitched into the carpet at Scholastic's offices.
"It talks about all kids reading," he said. "It's powerful. It's a company that I absolutely have wanted to work for. I didn't know when."