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.

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.

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Stefan Kamph
Contact: Stefan Kamph