NICEVILLE — The trustees of Northwest Florida State College abandoned a $6 million airport project Tuesday and fired the school's longtime president, who has been indicted over the deal.
The $6 million comes from a state college construction fund, though it is unclear when the money will become available for use on other projects.
The school trustees made both moves reluctantly, in part under pressure to act from Gov. Charlie Crist, as the small Panhandle school remains at the core of a political scandal that already has cost Destin state Rep. Ray Sansom his position as House speaker.
A Tallahassee grand jury indicted Sansom and school president Bob Richburg earlier this month, saying they falsified state budget documents related to the facility that was to be built at Destin Airport.
The grand jury concluded that although Sansom and Richburg claimed the building had an educational purpose, it really was to be used as a hangar for the jet business of a Sansom friend and political contributor.
The airport deal first came to light in stories by the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau, which last November began investigating Sansom's record of diverting money to the school before he was hired to a high-paying administrative job.
Among the revelations in the Times/Herald reports was that developer Jay Odom had tried to build a similar building for his jets in the very same spot for the very same price. As recently as January, college officials told the Times that the school's plans for the airport building never included Odom.
But during Tuesday's meeting, when a trustee asked school vice president Gary Yancey if there had ever been talk about making the building available for aircraft use he acknowledged the idea was discussed.
Yancey said those talks faded and said the land lease precludes anyone else from using the building. Still, the lease also carries a provision that would have allowed Odom to take over the college's interest in the building if the school no longer wanted to offer classes there.
Had it been built, the college facility would have been next door to Odom's Destin Jet business, on a parcel of land that Odom controls through his lease of airport property from Okaloosa County.
The college said the facility would have been used to train emergency workers and also double as a staging area during a storm.
On Tuesday, the board of trustees insisted the building would have been a valuable community asset. "I think the grand jury got it wrong," said trustee Brian Pennington.
"Ray Sansom has done nothing different than the prior speakers of the House. When he got that $6 million, it was a real blessing for the college to get," said board chairman Wesley Wilkerson.
But the political math was against pressing forward.
After staying out of the controversy for months, Crist last week said the college should return the money. On Monday, he put that in writing, sending the trustees a letter asking them to pay back more than $300,000 that has been spent on design and site work.
Trustees said they hope they can negotiate with the state to avoid having to do so, arguing that they proceeded with the project "in good faith." Repaying money already spent would have to come from the school's operating budget. "It's going to impact our school and our kids," trustee Dale Rice said.
The decision to fire Richburg, on a 4-3 vote, was no easier. Richburg has been the school leader since 1987, and last November drew intense scrutiny when he hired Sansom to a part-time administrator job that paid $110,000 per year.
The news came on the same day Sansom took over as house speaker, and soon it was revealed that Sansom had spent the previous two years directing about $35 million in new or accelerated construction money to the school, including $6 million for the college building.
"We have to turn this ship in another direction," said Rice, who added he is a friend of Richburg's. The controversy, he said, was "hurting the mission of this college and it is hurting kids and their future."
The indictment may have triggered the move, but trustees noted a string of controversies that have riven the community in recent years, including Richburg's decision to sell land donated by one of the area's founding families.
"We have had a cloud over our college for a long time," said trustee Teena Wells. She added: "I felt like my trust was violated the night he said he was hiring Ray Sansom and he didn't need the board's approval."
Vercell Vance dissented, saying Richburg has had a long, distinguished career and the move to oust him was hasty and would send a poor message. "I just don't think that's a fair or right thing to do. Media should not be our concern," he said to applause from the audience.
After the votes, a few members of the crowd stepped to the lectern and lambasted the trustees.
"You have not had the backbone to stand up to a media-led frenzy and have thrown a person who's a good person … under the bus. It's more like you've burned a saint at the stake," said Gaius Bruce, one of the original faculty members of the school.
Richburg will be replaced at least temporarily by Jill White, who has been a senior vice president at the college since 1997.
Richburg did not attend the meeting but declared his innocence in a letter to the trustees. In it he asked the college to pay his legal bills.
"Fortunately, despite the untoward media attention and political rush to judgment," he wrote, "I remain innocent and know that I am entitled to the benefit of following the well established legal process for resolving these matters."
Richburg's newly-hired attorney, Chris Kise, called the indictment a sham and asked of the firing Tuesday, "Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty?"
Alex Leary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.