The name Oxbridge — a mash-up of England’s Oxford and Cambridge universities — stands for 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.
And on April 22, in response to Palm Beach Post reporting on those complaints, Koch placed Parsons and athletics director Craig Sponsky on paid leave for an indefinite period, pending investigations by a team that includes an ex-FBI agent, a forensic accountant and the school’s employment law firm. Koch said they were placed on paid leave “so that there won’t be any consideration that they are influencing these investigations.”
Investigators were on the campus Wednesday, interviewing employees.
Also put on paid leave was bookstore manager Ulle Boshko, 45, who alleged in a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint in February that she was demoted from comptroller to bookshop manager because she refused Parson’s advances. “The comments were all the time,” she said.
A complaint she filed with the school in August 2015, alleging sexual harassment, a hostile working environment and retaliation, was dismissed as “not supported” in October by the same law firm Koch has assigned to the new investigation, Fisher & Phillips LLP of Fort Lauderdale.
Boshko has been placed on leave because “she’s the source of a lot of these allegations,” Koch said. Asked whether he had formed any conclusions about the CEO Parsons’ actions, Koch replied, “If there’s smoke, maybe there’s fire.”
Parsons did not return requests to discuss the allegations. Sponsky could not be reached for comment.
High turnover, high stress
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.
“Yeah, there’s a problem,” said Bodnar, who came to the school at its inception to set up and run its computer systems, as chief information officer and director of technology. As people came and went, Bodnar said, he picked up their responsibilities, becoming vice president of security, then chief of operations, and also working on financial aid and admissions.
“My role transformed into all these things I was handed over. My office became a revolving door for complaints from unhappy people. They didn’t seem to be able to talk with Bob, the president, so they ended up in my office,” said Bodnar, who still hears from employees of the school.
Asked whether he witnessed sexual harassment of female staffers by Parsons, 65, Bodnar had this to say:
“He was very flirtatious. I didn’t see him ever doing anything physically, doing anything like that, it was more the attention.”
The school regularly sends staffers to a sought-after program in Cambridge, England, he added. “Two of the same faculty members, who Bob favors, have been the ones to attend the Cambridge Program each of the last three years. The third is a rotating position. … He’s very much about loyalty. Those people who are loyal and he likes, are treated very well.”
Others said that, the criticism notwithstanding, Parsons exerts a forceful presence on the campus. “Bob is brilliant,” said one source who asked not to be idenfied. “He’s probably the smartest man I’ve ever worked with. …He sees every angle and covers every base. It would be like a chess master who sees many moves down the road.”
O’Donnell, who is also Koch’s public relations manager, said forensic accountants will look into individuals and allegations that favorite staffers got steep pay raises but also “systems, protocols, procedures, every aspect of it. They’re just trying to be as comprehensive as possible.”
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.
Hunt, who now runs her own management consulting firm based in Palm Beach Gardens, could not be reached for comment.
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.”
Other teachers praise the quality of the Oxbridge staff but say they work in constant fear for their jobs. “That’s the part that’s so disheartening,” said one. “It’s a great school. I love the people I work with and they truly care and they give of themselves greatly to these students. ‘Above and beyond’ doesn’t even begin to explain how much they give,” she said.
If Oxbridge were a Fortune 500 company with so much turnover, she said, “they’d be looking at the head and saying, ‘What’s going on? Are you incapable of making proper hires or what?’”
Said one teacher, “We’re doing great things on the educational side but the administration is just rotten.”
Parsons’ starting pay over $1 million
Koch, when asked about the turnover, said he hadn’t done a count but that he ascribed to the philosophy of corporate titan Jack Welch, retired chairman of General Electric, that “you turn over the bottom 10 percent every year.”
“I can’t speak to each one of these things, but when I was doing the America’s Cup I cut three of the very best sailors in the world off the team.” The reason, he said: “They weren’t team players…. It’s the team that wins.”
As to the “toxic” atmosphere, as more than one employee described it, “that will be addressed if it’s true,” Koch said.
“All turnover is not initiated by management,” he added. “Sometimes people come down here and find that they’re in the wrong job….
“You’re never 100 percent when you hire people. When we started off we made some bad hires and we had to correct them…. We made mistakes. You always make mistakes.”
Koch hand-picked Parsons to open the school, 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.
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.
“While the 90th percentile salary was $384,448, there was an enormous range, however, including several schools in the $650-700K range,” said Myra McGovern, NAIS vice president for media, in Washington, D.C. “The highest salaries tend to be in areas with very high costs of living and where professionals could get high salaries in other industries (i.e., New York City),” she said.
Though Parsons’ experience was in finance rather than academics, he built Oxbridge into a school that many laud for the education it provides, regardless of its internal dynamics for teachers and other staff. It has sent students to fine universities, publicist O’Donnell said, noting that the current president of Yale’s freshman class is an Oxbridge grad.
Favoring football is a concern
A number of current and former staffers expressed concern that in the past three years, the school diluted the academic strength of its student body by placing heavy emphasis on football. “Football has taken over the culture,” Bodnar said.
School officials acknowledge they’ve admitted some students on scholarship who don’t read past third grade level but have surrounded them with special staff to bring them up to speed.
Koch, who played varsity basketball at MIT, noted that Oxbridge had no football program at first.
“I outlawed football initially because I didn’t want any kids to get hurt,” he said. “But we have a program there that’s great: If a kid wants to start a sport or a club, he has to start an initiative, write a business plan and recruit others to sign up. I got outvoted.”
He said he takes seriously the concerns that the balance between academics and athletics has tilted. At the same time, he said, the school’s investment in football players, including a new, 1,500-seat stadium and an expansive physical therapy and wellness facility, fit his philosophy that personal growth and preparation for the real world come from competitive sport as well as academics. And sports, along with the financial aid and special faculty, also fit his desire for a diverse student body that provides opportunities to some who would be written off, as his father might have been, he said.
The ThunderWolves have been a success, in any event, stirring the bleachers with every touchdown. With the team nationally ranked among small schools last fall, six of its players signed with college teams this year on national signing day, including four with Division I teams — Connecticut, Miami and Southeast Missouri State.
In its first season in the Florida High Schools Athletic Association last year, Oxbridge reached the regional final, falling to American Heritage on a last-second touchdown pass.
Koch: ‘We’re looking into everything’
In response to Post questions, O’Donnell confirmed the school will investigate another allegation, that about a year ago, Parsons had athletic director Sponsky assign three maintenance staffers on school time to help a teacher move into her new apartment.
The school’s understanding, O’Donnell said, is that the teacher “hired a moving company that was at least in part owned by a member of the school’s custodial staff. He moved her and she paid him for his services.”
But two sources told The Post that although the moving company moved her out of her old apartment, she was unable to move into the new one because the apartment building didn’t allow weekend moves. Maintenance workers were assigned to move her in during school hours that Monday, using a rented truck, not a moving company, while they received their regular pay from the school, the sources said.
Boshko put her complaints on the record in August 2015, in a letter to the school’s Human Resources Department, and was interviewed by a lawyer for the school’s employment law firm, Fisher & Phillips. The firm rejected her allegations:
“The investigation revealed that Bob Parsons had a mutually friendly relationship with you that, by your admission, ended in 2011,” attorney Suzanne Bogdan wrote. “Although you now characterize that relationship as sexually harassing, which Mr. Parsons denies, any claims for sexual harassment would be legally barred at this point in time. You did not, at any time prior to your Aug. 26, 2015 letter assert any harassment concerns. You also claimed that other current female employees of the school were being subjected to alleged sexual harassment by Mr. Parsons. The investigation did not support those allegations.”
Boshko questioned the thoroughness of that investigation and whether the firm contacted those who could support her allegations. As a result she filed a complaint Feb. 23, 2016, with the Palm Beach County Office of Equal Opportunity and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that she had responsibilities taken away and had been demoted as retaliation for refusing Parsons’ advances.
Shortly after The Post began pursuing this story, Koch, accompanied by an attorney, met with Boshko, the first opportunity she had to spell out her troubles to the school founder. She said the meeting was cordial and that Koch indicated he’d been unaware of her employment complaint but promised to look into Boshko’s allegations.
“We’re looking into everything,” Koch told The Post.
“I have not heard until just recently that it’s sexually charged over there. I was quite surprised about that…. Some allegations we’ve checked out have been discredited already and some are of such a serious nature that we’ve really got to get into them. We’re doing that.
“What I’ve tried to have in all the businesses I’ve been in and all the activities I’ve been in is run everything straight to what the rules are. Sometimes you get a little close to the rules but you never cross over the line. To me crossing over the line is non-defensible.”
Boshko, for her part, said she’s not looking for money and has not retained an attorney. She wants her comptroller job back and Parsons, fired, she said.
“I don’t see why I should be the one to leave,” she said. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
To read the latest headlines from West Palm Beach, go to: http://palmbeachpost.com/westpalm.
Have a West Palm Beach news tip? Contact Staff Writer Tony Doris at email@example.com or 561-820-4703.