Losing Battle: Fort Lauderdale's Most Elite School -- Pine Crest -- Reels From 99 Days of Ill-Fated Leadership
On the day Hank Battle came to town in January, possibility was in the air at Pine Crest School. Construction crews jackhammered away at a new upper-school wing on the Fort Lauderdale campus; lower-schoolers at a second campus in Boca Raton walked in green-and-white uniforms through a building less than 2 years old.
The 49-acre campus in north Fort Lauderdale is an admissions-brochure dream: ten tennis courts and an Olympic-sized pool, a New-England bell tower at the entrance, Jeffersonian quadrangles and cloistered walkways. Extracurricular programs include a literary magazine, ballet, and rowing crews for both sexes. The school boasts champion swim and lacrosse teams, and average SAT scores in last year's graduating class were 1949 out of 2400, far higher than those of local public schools. The Fort Lauderdale campus hosts 1,600 kids in prekindergarten through high school; a satellite campus in Boca Raton serves 875 students who attend grade eight and below.
Battle arrived on campus to be the school's fourth president. He would be the first outsider to assume this position. Rather than rising through the ranks by years of service to the school, he had just spent 12 years as headmaster of a private school in North Carolina.
On the Friday before Martin Luther King Day, Battle appeared at a faculty meeting. Walter Banks, then-chairman of the board of trustees (and owner of the Lago Mar beach resort), stood to introduce him. Battle, fit and 54, with gray hair and a handsome face but a bit of Steve Buscemi from the side, began to speak.
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His microphone didn't work. He fiddled with the equipment clipped to his shirt, then addressed the teachers without amplification.
According to several people who attended that meeting, he said good things about the school and the board of trustees. He said good things about himself and his decades of academic leadership. He said he wanted to make Pine Crest the best independent school in the nation. To hear Battle tell it, he was the finest fundraiser in all the land.
One teacher, who asked to remain unnamed, recalled that he identified some "challenges" in running the school: "too many layers at the top, too much inefficiency."
Battle took a moment to answer questions. He addressed a rumor, admitting that he had almost turned down the job because the move would be hard on his wife and children.
The teacher recalled a foreboding moment when "a close colleague of mine, a phenomenal teacher, raised his hand and said, 'What can you tell us about contracts? We have families to take care of.' Battle would not answer the question."
Still, the faculty and staff were generally optimistic. Vince Arduini, then an assistant dean and offensive coordinator for the football team, said, "[Battle] indicated to us that he would be starting on February 1. It was a wait-and-see kind of thing. You're always respectful of people in those positions as they come in."
What Battle didn't let on in that meeting was that his marriage was failing and that when he did move, he'd be in the market for an oceanfront bachelor pad at the school's expense. He didn't mention that the man who had brought him to town and sold him to the board of trustees was an old colleague. And despite the euphemistic talk of "inefficiency," nobody predicted the all-out shitstorm of rumor, job losses, and litigation that Henry Marriott Battle Jr. would bring to town.
This summer, 19-year-old Brandon Knight walked onto a bright stage in Newark and shook hands with the NBA commissioner, accepting a job as point guard for the Detroit Pistons. In a Pistons cap and a shy smile, he looked awfully humble for the NBA's eighth overall draft pick. He'd just blasted his way through one year at Kentucky, scoring more points than any other freshman in the country.
Knight had worked hard in high school too — at Pine Crest. As a 2010 graduate, Knight was the product of an athletic program that was "as good as it's ever been in the history of the school," according to Jim Foster, the school's athletic director.
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.
The parent roster is a virtual register of Florida muckety-mucks, including David Stern, the foreclosure lawyer whose "robo-signing" practices helped kick thousands of people out of their homes; Ed Pozzuoli, president of the Tripp Scott law firm; and Boston Red Sox owner John Henry.
Tuition for the high school is $22,650, and pre-k costs $18,525, according to the school's website. On top of that, the list of donors is generous and broad-ranging.
A woman named Mae McMillan founded Pine Crest in 1934 as a winter tutoring program for vacationing kids, then continued to teach on a makeshift downtown campus. When the school moved to its current site in 1965, McMillan's son Bill took over as headmaster. Mae died in 1985, and in 1988, Bill passed the head's chair to Dr. Lourdes Cowgill, a longtime faculty member. This first handover to a non-McMillan passed with little controversy and broad support, according to parents and alumni.
The next transition wouldn't be so smooth.
According to several people connected to the school, Cowgill began to face trouble in 2010. Some of the most powerful among the 24 members of the board of trustees — including Marc Bell, the multimillionaire owner of Penthouse and AdultFriendFinder.com — sent their children to school at Pine Crest's Boca campus.
Cowgill, on the other hand, was a product of the Fort Lauderdale campus. She had joined the school before it acquired Boca Raton Academy in 1987. As the satellite campus grew, there was pressure from Boca parents for more representation in the administrative ranks.
"Some Boca parents that were on the board [wanted to] get rid of [Cowgill] so they could put somebody in as basically their puppet," says one former administrative employee, echoing a theory voiced by several parents who spoke to New Times. "Some of the trustees and parents that had a lot of money in Boca wanted academic requirements to be reduced, because they were scared that their kids wouldn't be able to get into the [Fort Lauderdale] high school."
Whatever the reasons they discussed behind closed doors, the board ushered Cowgill out of the president's office at the end of the 2009-10 school year. The board said in a prepared statement that this was "the product of an established succession plan with which... Cowgill had assisted several years ago."
Cowgill is still working with the school as a guidance counselor and did not reply to requests for comment. But multiple sources say she left the position much more quickly than expected.
To replace her, the board needed someone who was both a distinguished educator and a capable figurehead for the school — as well as a savvy fundraiser.
The new president would need to deal with some tricky finances. For all its prestige, Pine Crest faced a growing fiscal crisis at the start of 2011. Despite the five-digit tuition, the school was more than $80 million in debt.
The former employee estimates that more than $40 million of that was related to new construction on both campuses. He says that Pozzuoli was chair of the finance committee and that "the entire board [was] responsible for taking on debt" when it decided to move forward with the construction projects. But despite the shiny new facilities this investment produced, he says, "they didn't add any more classrooms, so [the construction] is not going to bring in any more revenue."
The board hired one of the best-known recruiting firms in the country, Heidrick and Struggles, to find a new president. The man at the helm of the search, according to people close to the process, was a principal with the firm named George Conway, a white-haired former chaplain, teacher, and headmaster. Of the three final presidential candidates Conway brought to campus, he pushed one in particular, says the administrative employee.
Hank Battle was headmaster at Forsyth Country Day School in North Carolina, where in 12 years he had grown the full-time student body from around 600 to 900 and increased revenue through additional à la carte schooling programs. His most visible achievement at Forsyth was adding the Johnson Academic Center, which offers tutoring.
This was one mechanism behind Forsyth's increase in student population: The admissions department relaxed its standards somewhat for applicants with family members already at the school. The school stood to benefit from the new students' tuition dollars, and if the students were academically lagging, they could receive tutoring at the center. No longer a stringent requirement for admissions, academic advantage could be offered for a fee.
"It was certainly a great recruiting tool" for families at the school, says David Martin, chair of Forsyth's board of trustees. "I could say, 'Look, I can take care of all your children regardless of their academic abilities. Don't worry about academics.' "
Battle also oversaw a reputed tenfold growth in Forsyth's endowment — money that's invested to produce revenue through interest payments every year — through fundraising and other measures.
Battle's accomplishments must have impressed the Pine Crest board. Although Pine Crest is a nonprofit organization like most prep schools, at least two board members have interest in for-profit education. Andy Rosen is CEO of Kaplan Inc., a $2.6 billion test-prep and tutoring outfit. And Jonathan Hage, another board member, owns a company that manages a string of charter schools across Florida under the Charter Schools USA banner as well as numerous limited-liability corporations with names like "Fishin' 4 Schools." Hage's corporations list fellow board member Pozzuoli as their registered legal agent.
Moreover, says the administrative worker, "The Boca trustees thought Hank was a guy from whom they could get anything they wanted."
Conway, Battle, and the board sealed the deal. Battle resigned from his position at Forsyth, sending the school into an accelerated search for a new headmaster. He left behind his wife and children on a quiet, tree-lined street across from a country club and moved to Florida, where lavish rewards awaited him.
Back in 2007, Battle made news in a Wall Street Journal article called "Prep-School Payday" for being paid "more than $300,000 in salary and bonuses" at Forsyth.
His new, exorbitant contract at Pine Crest went far beyond that. It netted him just under a million bucks a year and guaranteed five years of pay, according to the former employee. And that was just the base salary.
A clause of the contract allowed Battle yearly bonuses tied to the amount of money he brought in through fundraising, the person says.
This practice would violate the ethical recommendations of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), a body that provides guidelines for school fundraising. In its recommendations, CASE advises that bonuses "should... not be expressed as a percentage of individual gifts or aggregate giving, since doing so would constitute a commission... [which] will encourage inappropriate conduct by fundraisers anxious to secure gifts at any cost."
Board member Pozzuoli would not discuss Battle's salary, but he does concede that the school also agreed to provide Battle with a loan to buy a home in South Florida. His eventual choice? A 2,000-square-foot condominium on the 19th floor of the Ritz-Carlton right on Fort Lauderdale Beach (David Stern, the foreclosure lawyer, owns a penthouse on the 24th floor). A copy of a contract addendum obtained by New Times shows that Battle was prepared to pay $1.3 million for the condo and an additional $185,000 in remodeling fees. The addendum does not show whether the deal went through, but Battle told several people who spoke to New Times that he was living at the Ritz, and public records list the property as his residence through May of this year.
In January, Battle established a Florida limited-liability corporation called HMB Property Enterprises. Pozzuoli, who is listed as the company's legal contact, says that Battle intended the company to be an investment vehicle to purchase residential property.
While Battle drank from the school's largesse, he and his team began to mull deep cuts to the school's current staff. Rumors began to circulate that longtime teachers wouldn't have their contracts renewed. "The process was as opaque as anything could be," says Barbara Grosz, a biology teacher who retired voluntarily this year, "so everything [we knew] was rumor."
Several parents and a faculty member say that Battle recruited a "leadership group" of high school students who met with him about once a week. Grosz says he also convened an early-morning class in which he spoke candidly with students. Teachers heard that he used students' opinions of them to make decisions on whose contracts would be renewed.
"He was speaking to students and not to teachers at all," says Grosz. "Many of us never physically saw him. I don't think I ran across him on campus one time."
"We were completely in the dark," says another teacher. "We had students coming up to teachers, putting arms around them and saying, 'Don't worry, I'll put in a good word for you.' "
Among the students, Battle was a frequent presence. One female high school student says, "Mr. Battle was always walking around campus. A lot of us met him." At first, she says, "he seemed like the coolest guy ever." He treated students as peers and rescinded a recent change to the dress code that had prevented girls from wearing skirts.
She recalls that in meetings with Battle, including one night when he had dinner with her athletic team, he would ask kids to name teachers "who are great, and who aren't great."
Kids were recruited not only to provide feedback but to meet with new prospective faculty members. Grosz remembers overhearing one of her students say before class, "It's really weird when you're asked to escort someone around campus and you know that eventually you're going to run into the [teacher] he's going to replace."
One evening, the high school student was attending a home basketball game with a few of her friends when Battle approached her. "He was standing in the student section," she says. "He knew my and all my friends' names, but he didn't know who the teachers were. He made me point my finger at the teachers [in the crowd] and tell him their names."
At one point during the game, the student says, her father called her cell phone. "Let me answer," said Battle, taking the phone from her.
She remembers Battle telling her father, "You have an excellent daughter."
Before he left, she says, Battle made a proposal to the group of students: How would they like to go to Washington, D.C., with him to attend the conference of the National Association of Independent Schools?
"I want you kids to come and show them how great you are," the student remembered Battle saying. "We'll ride in a limo, eat in nice restaurants." They would leave the following Monday.
The girl's mother was furious: "I marched into [Battle's] office and said, 'How dare you ask my kids to go on a trip without asking me?' " she says now.
She did not give her daughter permission to go.
Tension among the teachers increased throughout the spring. Teachers at Pine Crest work on one-year contracts that need to be renewed each year if they are to keep their jobs. This year, they were told that no contracts for the following year would be issued until April 1 — too late for them to comfortably apply for jobs at other schools.
"During that February period, a lot of us were looking for jobs" in advance of the decisions, says one teacher.
"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.
Although the board may have been aware of this association, to parents looking for behavior to criticize, the relationship seemed too close for comfort.
"There was no search," says the former administrative employee. "Conway played Pine Crest. He sold Hank Battle to those trustees, and they bought him." Conway did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Additionally, business records show that Battle had an interest in side ventures that started as early as 1999. Three months after beginning his job at Forsyth, he started his own educational consulting firm, called Marriott Consulting.
In 2004, Battle changed the business name to NewSouth Associates NS Inc. He stayed on as president until 2008, when the firm's director, Christopher Perry, assumed control. The most recent filings available for the business list its address as that of Forsyth Country Day School, where Perry himself worked until recently as a consultant and taught economics classes.
A top expert in the educational recruiting field who did not want to be named for professional reasons said he was aware that "historically, Hank has always done work on the side." He said such a combination of interests was "not typical, to say the least."
Two legal cases provide some insight into the fallout from Battle's tenure at Forsyth. In 1999, a lower-school guidance counselor named Dinah McCotter sued Battle personally for breach of contract, alleging that he arranged for her to be fired when he was working as a consultant in the months before he became headmaster. Both parties voluntarily dismissed the lawsuit in December 1999.
Another lawsuit could be on the horizon. Margaret Bennett, a teacher who was fired from Forsyth last year under Battle's direction, has filed an age discrimination charge against the school. Negotiations continue; if they cannot reach an agreement, Bennett may sue the school by August, her lawyer says.
When Battle left Forsyth Country Day, the school scrambled to hire a new headmaster by July 1. A job posting suggests that Forsyth faced an uphill battle in convincing people that even with the à la carte academic center, the school was academically rigorous.
"Forsyth's primary focus is to provide a first-rate college preparatory education to students of average to superior ability, but the successful establishment of the [academic center] programs as an adjunct to the primary mission may be contributing to some confusion in the broader community," read one part of the job listing, which a parent posted to the comments section of the Sun-Sentinel article.
Another, carefully worded brochure to recruit a new headmaster, obtained by New Times, reads: "The previous Head of School presided over an exciting era of growth and innovation... While [Forsyth] has been immeasurably enriched by the many initiatives he launched, members of the school family are now ready for a breather."
As the Yahoo! board filled up with comments and questions about Battle's past, another group of concerned Pine Crest alumni started a separate online discussion, this one accessible only to members.
One of the group's members, a 1972 alumnus named Michael Lee, circulated an email called "Recipe for Disaster." It was a wry, two-page outline of steps he said the school had taken, such as "Hire headhunting agency featuring an apparently biased rep who presents and champions his new candidate for headmaster" and "Install candidate as new headmaster mid-year for no apparent reason, creating the appearance of a coup d'etat and sending a message of instability to the parents and community."
The tenor of the anti-Battle conversation became more vicious, with parents spreading gossip that Battle was dating several students' mothers during his tenure at Pine Crest.
While he had initially represented himself as a happily married family man, court records show that Battle's wife sued him for child custody and filed a temporary restraining order on April 1, suggesting that their relationship is broken. Parents contacted for this article and a neighbor in North Carolina say his family never followed him to Fort Lauderdale.
Grosz says of the information that was circulating on the internet: "We've always frowned on gossip, so... to have all this be public, it was embarrassing and hurtful, and some of it was not true."
In a meeting on Tuesday, May 10, in a room full of anxious faculty, the board called it quits for Battle. Dana Markham, a longtime teacher and administrator at the school, stood and made the announcement: The board had decided unanimously to place Hank Battle on administrative leave (sources suggest that his contract prevented an outright termination). Markham would become acting president.
The room erupted in cheers. "My colleagues called me right from the meeting so I could hear the commotion," says Grosz. Another teacher says that in the 30-minute meeting, there were seven standing ovations for the board.
When they walked out of the room, the teacher says, they were giggling. She says she saw a familiar custodian standing in the hallway. "Wow, something good happened," he exclaimed. "Y'all look completely different."
All of the teachers contacted for this article made it clear that despite the troubles with Battle, they still admire and love the school itself.
Grosz explains: "We all understood very well that there had been changes made that couldn't be reversed, but there was still a lot of optimism... The heart and soul of that school is the supertalented faculty."
But it was too late for Vince Arduini, the associate dean and football coach. Enticed by another offer, Arduini had already decided to take a job as athletic director at St. John's School in Houston.
"During the meeting, I was in football practice," he says. "By that time, I had already decided to leave anyway. After practice, I went to my car and headed home."
That's the worst part, says the high school student who spoke to New Times: the people who won't come back.
"Some of the greatest teachers I ever had left," she says, mentioning Arduini by name. "The best ones are all gone now."
When Battle was ousted, David Bowman left the vice-president post, and John East declined the athletic director's position after all. The school reversed course: It contacted Jim Foster, the longtime athletic director, and asked him to stay on for one more year. He agreed to remain at his old job on a one-year temporary basis. But things aren't the same.
"I'm dealing with a mess," says Foster. "People left. The cross-country and track coaches, the boys' soccer coach... Some people left because of the East and Battle thing; some are moving on because I wasn't going to be there or because they have no confidence in the place."
He adds, "Pine Crest will never be the same as we knew it. It will either be better or worse. We need strong leadership to move forward."
Battle's plans for a new academic center have been scrapped. Communications Director Karla Dejean writes in an email that the school is continuing a "developmental learning" program to meet "each child's unique needs" without building a new center.
Amlong, the lawyer for the dismissed teachers, says the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agreed to conduct "site visits" at Pine Crest and analyze employee rosters to look for discrimination. A settlement — or a lawsuit — could still be in the works.
Hank Battle did not respond to requests for an interview. He has taken a job as a consultant with a teacher recruiting firm in Dallas called the Education Group. The company's president, Mary Kesler, calls Battle "someone I've known for a number of years." Kesler says Battle has not moved to Dallas and "works independently out of his own home" in Florida.
Battle continues to fight with the school over the rest of his $5 million contract, according to sources familiar with the situation, who say that ending it prematurely is not going to be easy.
In June, Ellen Ramm, a retired Pine Crest teacher who coincidentally happens to live two doors down from Battle's old house in North Carolina, received a call from a private investigator. The woman said she had been hired by a law firm working for the school, Ramm recalled. It seemed to Ramm that Pine Crest was looking for signs that Battle might have misrepresented himself before signing the heavy-duty contract — in particular, the fact that he was not happily married, as he had claimed.
Ramm said she occasionally saw Linda Battle but rarely spoke to her. She knew Forsyth teachers and parents who had grievances about Battle's tenure there, but none of them wanted to talk about it. This silence is a common theme now, as both schools recover from Battle's whirlwind influence.
As this story goes to press, the "History" section of the Pine Crest website features a near-beatific painting of founder Mae McMillan beaming like a benign matron over the bell tower, the cloisters, the trees. It also contains a notable inaccuracy.
"Dr. Cowgill succeeded [Bill] McMillan on September 1, 1995; she retired in January of this year," the page reads. "Dr. Dana Markham became the school's acting fourth president the following month."
Dr. Dana Markham actually became the school's acting fifth president — in May, not February. Just like that, the 99-day tenure of Hank Battle is neatly erased from history. It's a period the school would rather forget.
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