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State attorney lets contract stand

Published Oct. 12, 2005

Harold Winkler can keep his November plane reservation from Michigan to Hernando County.

That, in essence, is the word from State Attorney Brad King, who announced he won't challenge Winkler's contract as Hernando's first-ever appointed school superintendent.

In August, an 18-member grand jury said the contract was tainted because the district's five School Board members violated the state's public meetings law.

But in a one-page statement Friday to the board chairman, King said: "While I agree with the grand jury's findings that the Winkler contract was originally generated in board proceedings that did not comply with that statute, I believe the board's subsequent actions were legally sufficient to confirm the agreement."

The board has affirmed the contract at two properly announced meetings in the past month, he said:

"As no reason now exists, as a matter of law, to challenge the validity of that contract, it appears its orderly implementation would best serve the interest of the school district."

Winkler, in Michigan, said he was pleased with King's decision.

"I felt all along, as did my attorney and the School Board attorney, that we had a valid contract," he said. "I'm sure the state attorney was doing what he had to do. It's going to be easier to come to Hernando County and not worry about defending my contract. Now I can concentrate on what they hired me to do."

Winkler has resigned as superintendent of Lake Houghton schools in Michigan. He starts his job in Hernando in mid-November.

In August, the grand jury indicted the board members on charges of breaking Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine law by privately discussing Winkler's contract, a contract with the Unisys Computer Corp., and the 1991 hiring of ServiceMaster, a private company that manages the district's maintenance department.

Besides their recommendation for voiding Winkler's contract, the jurors recommended that Gov. Lawton Chiles remove board members Susan Cooper and Diane Rowden from office for malfeasance, misfeasance or neglect of duty. Last month, Chiles said he would not suspend the two.

On Oct. 23, four of the five board members are scheduled to have pretrial hearings. Cooper, who has pleaded innocent, has five criminal charges and one non-criminal count. Clemons has pleaded innocent to one criminal and two non-criminal violations. And board members Nancy Gordon and Leland McKeown, who have two non-criminal infractions each, have both pleaded innocent.

Rowden, who has the most charges, with 13 criminal counts and two non-criminal infractions, will be arraigned Wednesday.

If convicted, board members could be sentenced to a maximum of 60 days in the county jail and/or a $500 fine for each of the misdemeanor count. A conviction on non-criminal charges could result in a $500 fine for each count.