By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
"The kids really noticed," she says. "We just all lost our energy levels. It was depressing, and we didn't know who was going to go next."
The student who declined Battle's travel invitation agrees, saying that Battle's cool-guy persona soon lost its charm. "All the teachers were so stressed, so upset," she says. "We all love our teachers."
Jim Foster, the athletic director who had watched Brandon Knight develop from a talented kid to an NBA-ready phenom under the athletic program he had largely built from scratch, found out in February that he would lose his job. The replacement? John East, the athletic director at a small Christian school in Georgia.
"They called me in on Sunday morning, about 10," says Foster. "They asked me to meet them at noon. 'We're not renewing your contract,' they told me. [East] was already on campus, I think."
Foster says that he met East once and that they had a cordial conversation. Foster welcomed East to come by his office to talk about the job, but the new recruit never took him up on the offer.
"They asked me to stay on till the end of the school year," says Foster. "East would take over on July 1." Foster remained to serve out the year.
One by one, some teachers learned that their contracts would not be renewed. Although the school did not provide New Times with a comprehensive list of teachers and staff who were let go, one parent circulated a document by email claiming that 100 percent of lower-school administrators lost or left their jobs and that 27 percent of the "lower school lead teachers" did so.
Meanwhile, Battle was moving ahead with plans to build an "academic center" at Pine Crest, much like the Johnson Academic Center he had built at Forsyth. Some current teachers and administrators were slated to be reassigned to the academic center.
Battle presented his concept to the board. At a breakfast with parents in Boca in April, he distributed a two-page summary of the plan.
Pine Crest is known for being academically rigorous, and many students seek tutoring outside of school when they fall behind in classes or need to prepare for a test. Battle's idea would capture the market for those services, making them an integrated — if costly — part of the school's normal operations. Tuition for the academic center would be an extra $15,000 per year.
Parents say Battle also pitched the center as an aid to siblings of current students who did not meet traditional academic requirements. Some wary parents did not like this idea because they thought it translated into a dumbing-down of an elite institution.
Battle finessed these concerns in his presentation. "Despite rumors to the contrary, there are no changes in our admission policy," he wrote, before adding that "whenever possible, we do not want to split families at Pine Crest."
This unease about the school's future only further upset those who were already distressed about the exodus of teachers.
Some of the dismissed teachers were close to retirement age and didn't get any explanation of why their contracts were not being renewed. David Bowman, a business partner of Battle's who had followed him down to Pine Crest to serve as his vice president of operations, broke the news to some of the teachers.
Ray Anastas, a popular social studies teacher, said that "Bowman... told me that he did not know me and did not know the circumstances but that a group of administrators had decided that I would be offered a... severance package." Anastas, who is 63, said nobody told him why. Another teacher, Norman Williams, 61, said "Bowman... gave me no reason for the nonrenewal of my contract."
Six other employees age 54 and older (teachers, assistants, and a maintenance worker) had similar stories. Meanwhile, the teachers say, the school was recruiting younger teachers to fill their positions. In March, the first of the eight dismissed workers approached William Amlong, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer with experience in age-discrimination lawsuits. The others followed soon after.
Amlong filed charges with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming age discrimination. The charges stated that each employee was dismissed solely based on age, without regard to performance on the job. If no settlement could be reached, the next step would be a lawsuit.
Then Amlong, a former newspaper reporter, called the Sun-Sentinel.
When news of the discrimination complaints made it into the paper — complete with lively quotes from Amlong, who called it an "elder massacre" — on April 27, the school's veil of privacy was torn open.
"I think probably a big turning point came when the Sun-Sentinel reported that teachers were suing for age discrimination," says Grosz.
Comments poured in to the online version of the article, giving voice to rumors and laments that had previously been only whispers. Alumni mourned Lourdes Cowgill's tenure as president, criticized the board of trustees, questioned Battle's competency, and worse.
Two days after the story was published, a Pine Crest parent started a Yahoo! discussion group. Some parents began to dig deeper into his past.
Parents discovered that Battle had more than a passing acquaintance with George Conway, the recruiter who had brought him to the Pine Crest board. The two had worked together at St. Anne's-Belfield School in Virginia: Conway was headmaster from 1982 to 2006; Battle worked at the school from 1983 to 1991, first as a history teacher and then as assistant headmaster.
"Knight may be the most recent alumnus bound for greatness, but he's not the only one. Wayne Huizenga, the Waste Management magnate and chief Fort Lauderdale benefactor, went to Pine Crest. So did Frasier's Kelsey Grammer and avant-garde jazz musician John Medeski."
Don't forget Ken Barrington. The star of Love in the Wild II (who was also blessed with the sexy smooth voice of Alan Alda).