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Pinellas School Board isn't happy about Clayton Wilcox's $1.5 million promise

Former Pinellas superintendent Clayton Wilcox left 16 months ago. But he's still giving School Board members fits.

They're just now learning that Wilcox agreed to give the Pinellas Education Foundation $1.5 million to help complete the new Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy at Tarpon Springs High School.

In September 2006, the board agreed to loan the foundation up to $5 million for the project. But because of Wilcox's commitment — made shortly before he left, and without board approval — it's now faced with either eating the difference or playing hardball with the foundation, a partner for more than two decades.

Board members are likely to honor Wilcox's agreement. But they're not happy about being kept in the dark.

"How can the superintendent take a million and a half taxpayer dollars and donate that to anything without board approval?" said board member Janet Clark. "We have a lot of other things that (money) could go to."

Wilcox, who left in June 2008, is now a vice president at Scholastic Corp., the children's book publishing giant. A Scholastic spokesman said Wilcox was at the company's "superintendents' summit" this week and could not be reached.

School Board attorney Jim Robinson said he discovered Wilcox's pledge in the summer, as he began putting together a proposed promissory note that spells out a repayment schedule for the foundation's loan.

An April 29, 2008 memo from Wilcox to Terry Boehm, president and chief executive of the Pinellas Education Foundation, says "we administratively agreed and then moved through our capital outlay processes an additional $1.5 million dollars to be used to complete the facility and purchase capitalized items to benefit the mission of the facility."

Wilcox announced his decision to leave on April 17, 2008. He cleared out within weeks.

Boehm said Wilcox agreed to give the foundation $1.5 million after the project grew in size and surpassed the $3.4 million the foundation had agreed to contribute. He said it was "odd" that board members did not know.

"It was never a big secret from our end," Boehm said.

"We look at the superintendent as the CEO of the operation," he continued. "If he comes in and agrees to do something, how he handles it back at the ranch, that's really none of our business."

The foundation spearheaded the project so it could take advantage of its fundraising abilities and skip the district's bid process, Boehm said.

The 11,600-square-foot complex has two kitchens with 48 cooking stations and a restaurant with seating for 100. It features "very sophisticated equipment that probably wouldn't have been there had we gone through the regular bid process," he said. "They would have built that like a cafeteria in a school."

The arrangement behind the facility's construction is unusual. But the district and foundation followed a similar process with the Stavros Institute. In both cases, the foundation turned ownership over to the district.

The promissory note is likely to be on the agenda at the board's Oct. 27 meeting.

Robinson told board members that the district advanced $4.08 million to the foundation through June 30.

He said despite Wilcox's note to Boehm, the district's finance staff continued to log all advances to the foundation as loans. He said final numbers are still being tallied, but the proposed promissory note's bottom line should be about $3 million after $1.5 million is deducted.

Superintendent Julie Janssen will recommend that the board okay that arrangement.

Wilcox "should have taken (the $1.5 million) to the board … but that's neither here nor there," she said. "I just need to move forward."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

FAST FACTS

The Jacobson Culinary Arts Academy

• The grand opening for the new building was in April.

• Total cost for construction and equipment: $4.47 million, according to the Pinellas Education Foundation.

• Tarpon Springs High School alum Carol Martin donated $2 million. Iowa businessman Richard Jacobson — for whom the building is named — donated $1 million.

• The culinary arts program blends academic courses with career technical education. Students use equipment commonly found in the food industry and work with four professional chef instructors.

• The academy serves just over 200 students.

Pinellas School Board isn't happy about Clayton Wilcox's $1.5 million promise 10/08/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 8, 2009 1:28am]
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