Bill Koch, one of the famous billionaire Koch brothers, decided he wanted to open a great high school, an example for the nation. He created Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida, where the sky was the limit in terms of spending.
He recruited the chief financial officer of the U.S. Naval Academy as its headmaster by offering him a financial package worth more than $1 million a year.
Koch’s goal was excellence:
That’s the aim of Oxbridge Academy, whose roster of teachers and administrators recruited from around the country aspires to the highest of academic ambitions for their 580 students, who populate a sprawling West Palm Beach campus and engage in extracurricular activities that range from horseback riding to sailing and flight simulation and boast a football team that rarely loses.
Tuition is $31,500 a year, though many students receive financial aid as part of Chairman Bill Koch’s desire to maintain a diverse student body elevated, as his industrialist father was decades ago, by the generosity of others. Koch, a Palm Beach energy industry billionaire, antiquities collector and America’s Cup winner, founded the West Pam Beach high school in 2011 and estimates he has invested $75 million to $100 million to make Oxbridge one of the finest in the nation.
But curtained behind the wooded grounds and low-slung buildings at Military Trail and Community Drive, say past and present employees, exists a working environment led by President and CEO Robert C. Parsons that’s fraught with firings, high turnover, accusations of sexual harassment and an emphasis tilting from academics to athletics….
What worries employees is the frequency of firings, the swiftness of departures and absence of explanation. One day a colleague is there and the next, gone.
That has been the pattern, not with just teachers but high-level administrators with top credentials, who came attracted by the excitement of creating an innovative, high-powered school only to find themselves out the door, sometimes in a matter of months.
Neen Hunt, for example, came before the school’s opening, to organize operations as academics chief. Hunt, a Phi Beta Kappa, cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, had earned a Master of Arts in Education and a Doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She came to Oxbridge from New York’s prestigious Calhoun School, where she was head of school.
She was gone before the first day of class….
Of the inaugural group of 17 teachers that started in fall 2011, many who Hunt recruited from around the country, eight were told in February 2012 their contracts wouldn’t be renewed but that they were expected to finish the term.
“It was such a horrible atmosphere and so unprofessional,” said one instructor who wasn’t fired. “They wanted me to come back but there was no way I was going to let my career be ruined by those people. The atmosphere felt evil and very controlling. It was one of the most disturbing places I have ever worked in under the guise of being an educational environment. It was shocking.”
When interviewed, Bill Koch said the high turnover didn’t bother him, because he works under the Jack Welch philosophy that the bottom 10 percent should be fired every year. Apparently, he didn’t notice that more than the bottom 10 percent were leaving every year.
Koch is now paying for an investigative team to get to the bottom of numerous allegations. Several top officials have been placed on paid leave, including the employee who was a whistle-blower.
Staff turnover has been amazingly high, considering the seemingly idyllic working conditions:
Mark Bodnar, the school’s former second-in-command, said he left the stress of working in that environment to hike trails in Arizona. He estimated that more than 120 people have been fired or quit, some after having left prestigious schools and moving their families cross-country to work at Oxbridge. Another source put the number at 135, including part-timers.
The school’s public relations manager, Carey O’Donnell, said that from 2011 to now, 96 employees left, 34 of them fired.
In the past two or three months, the school’s treasurer/chief financial officer, an accountant who was out on family leave and its baseball coach were fired and its security director demoted to security guard, according to current employees.
Be sure to read the comments on the original story in the Palm Beach Post. Some are from current or former employees.
When a reporter from the New York Times called to ask me about this story, in preparation for writing about it, I said that at least Bill Koch is paying for implementing his ideas instead of expecting the public to pay for them, as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family, John Arnold, and many other billionaires are doing. Wouldn’t it be great if all of them opened their own private schools and tried out their educational ideas using their own money, instead of imposing them on other people’s children and demanding public support?