Oxbridge Academy fired its $694,000-a-year CEO Thursday and decided not to renew two other top staffers’ contracts, after a Palm Beach Post investigation prompted the private high school’s chairman — Palm Beach billionaire Bill Koch — to investigate the school he founded.
In a letter to Oxbridge parents Friday, released the morning after Thursday night’s graduation ceremonies, Koch said the school’s board of directors removed President and CEO Robert Parsons, who led the school since its founding in 2011.
Director of Athletics Craig Sponsky and football coach Doug Socha are also out following the Post’s investigation into allegations of a toxic work environment, high faculty turnover, an over-emphasis on football at the expense of academics and allegations of sexual harassment by Parsons.
Oxbridge had placed Parsons, Sponsky and bookstore manager Ulle Boshko on paid leave in April after the Post’s story. At the same time Koch ordered investigations by a team that included an ex-FBI agent, a forensic accountant and a lawyer.
Boshko’s fate was not mentioned in Koch’s letter to parents.
She filed a complaint against the school in November with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging Parsons demoted her from comptroller to bookstore manager when she refused his sexual advances. The complaint is still pending.
The school’s board made its decision after hearing the investigators’ initial findings Wednesday and meeting with Parsons Thursday. The chairman of the school’s Executive Committee, Bob Kaufmann, met with staff and faculty at 7:30 a.m. Friday at the campus at 3151 N. Military Trail, to advise them of the decisions and content of the letter.
Neither Parsons, Sponsky nor Socha could be reached for comment.
Academic Dean John Klemme will assume the title Head of School, a post he has effectively held on an interim basis since the board put Parsons on a leave of absence five weeks ago.
Koch called the decisions bittersweet.
“Bob (Parsons) has given much to achieve the successful, fast start at Oxbridge and I want to say ‘thank you’ to him for that,” he wrote. “At the same time, these last weeks have been difficult for the school community. Today the board is more fully aware of issues of concern. Simply put, the board felt that now was the proper and necessary time to turn the page.”
Boshko said a school representative told her recently that Oxbridge wants to mediate a settlement. Boshko, however, told The Palm Beach Post in April that she wanted Parsons out and she wanted to be reinstated as comptroller.
“I don’t see why I should be the one to leave,” she said at the time. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Friday she applauded the decision to fire Parsons.
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“At the same time, my heart goes out to everyone whose lives were negatively impacted by Bob Parsons’ management style throughout the years he was employed at Oxbridge,” she said. “I hope that the board can appreciate the difficulties of my decision to finally come forward and respect the fact that all allegations that were brought to their attention were worth looking into in order to ultimately save the school.”
With the departures of Sponsky and Socha, the board plans to reduce the profile of its successful football program, which was subject of complaints that it was over-emphasized, to the point of admitting athletes who couldn’t read past 3rd grade level. Head coach Socha earned $230,481 in 2014, according to nonprofit school’s most recent IRS filings.
Koch hand-picked Parsons, a former U.S. Naval Academy chief financial officer, to open the school in 2011, luring him with a compensation package that totalled $1,138,156 in 2012, including residence in a Wellington house rented for him by Oxbridge Academy Foundation, Inc. The most recent federal filings by the nonprofit school listed Parsons’ compensation as $694,540 during the 2014-2015 fiscal year.
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Nationally, the median base salary for a head of a school that belongs to the National Association of Independent Schools was $230,000 in 2015-16. Oxbridge is not a member of that organization.
Multiple employees — past and present — told The Post that a combination of swift and frequent firings, allegations that Parsons favored attractive staff members with attention and steep raises, and a shift in emphasis from academics to athletics, created a fearful, rumor-filled atmosphere for the school staff.
Susan Gray, president of the Oxbridge Parent Organization, said Friday the group stands behind the decision by Koch and the board to oust Parsons.
“We’re pleased to see the action that he’s taken,” Gray said. “We know that it will make the school stronger. As a parent, I have no concerns about leaving my child at that school and I am a college professor, a doctor of organizational leadership, and I have no concerns about keeping my child at Oxbridge.”
As for concerns that stressing football has taken away from other aspects of the school, she said: “I have a daughter who plays violin and plays no sports. My child has always felt taken care of, involved, engaged, receiving the right schooling, the right level of engagement and interest.”
Koch said the board hopes “to be in a position soon” to tell how the two sports jobs will be filled and to reshape the sports program.
“Oxbridge was founded in the belief that we could become the leading secondary school in the state of Florida,” he wrote. “We continue to believe in the importance of athletics in providing a well-rounded education to all our students. We are also totally committed to having an outstanding program of academics through curricular and co-curricular programs that will enable our graduates to be the best they can be and to become well-grounded contributors to society.
“We have much of which to be proud,” he added. “The fingerprints of many are on the successes we have had to date.
“A few weeks ago we were presented with a list of concerns,” he said, apparently referring to concerns fielded by The Palm Beach Post from past and present employees and submitted to Koch for comment.
“Some of these were not accurate but some were. We have done our best to examine all aspects of those and to expeditiously take steps to guarantee our future. My hope now is that we are ready to heal and continue to build on Oxbridge’s many successes.”
Speaking to the Post on Friday through his public relations manager, Carey O’Donnell, Koch, an energy industry billionaire and one-time America’s Cup winner, said the school’s mission will be to balance athletics with education.
“We need to get the right balance,” O’Donnell quoted him as saying. “We have an excellent boat here. We are fine-tuning it so it moves fast and in the right direction.”
In the past 48 hours, O’Donnell said, 72 contracts were sent out to teachers for renewal.
“All 72 came back signed. No one is resigning as a result of this,” she said.
She declined comment on the results of the school’s internal investigation and said its findings about allegations of sexual harassment and favoritism by Parsons would remain private.
Have a West Palm Beach news tip? Contact Staff Writer Tony Doris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-820-4703.
What The Post reported
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer Tony Doris conducted more than two dozen interviews with past and present Oxbridge Academy faculty about a working environment that was fraught with firings, high turnover, accusations of sexual harassment and an emphasis tilting from academics to athletics. In response to his reporting, the school launched an investigation that included an ex-FBI agent, a forensic accountant and the school’s employment law firm.