Host: Richard Corcoran, the interim president of New College, has NOT been named in an investigation by a Federal Grand Jury. But, in an affair whose effects are barely beginning to play out now, that’s probably the only good news for the politician likely to be appointed the next leader of the public university. Since June, the feds have been investigating a case of attempted bid rigging for a public-school contract in a poor north Florida county. The investigation targets people who reported to the Florida education commissioner – Richard Corcoran at the time. And the main beneficiary of the consulting contract would have been a long-time political ally of Richard Corcoran. Yesterday, Cathy Antunes, host of The Detail show on WSLR, interviewed Billy Townsend. The former Polk County school board member is closely following the politics and business of education in Florida. We are playing excerpts from the interview.
Johannes Werner: The Jefferson County school district is tiny. It consists of just three schools, located in the same campus. It is also one of the poorest school districts in the state, and it had miserable educational outcomes a decade ago. That prompted the state’s commissioner of education in 2017 to intervene and arrange for a takeover of the entire district by a politically connected corporation called Academica.
Screenshot from a promotional video made for Hillsdale College.
Billy Townsend: Corcoran’s folks saw an opportunity to exploit the failure and do a charter takeover of Jefferson County. The guy who succeeded Richard Corcoran as commissioner of education, the current Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz, worked for a company called Academica, which owned a company called Somerset, which was the charter company that got the sweet deal to take over the Jefferson County Schools. But as they quickly figured out, that work is hard. By the fourth and fifth years, their scores had collapsed far below anything that had ever happened.
J.W.: Even so – or because of that – then-Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in 2021 arranged for a return of the school district to the public. But that was not going to happen without the help of a private consultant and a million-dollar fee paid by the poor school district.
B.T.: It’s a very cynical story. They sold it on idealism – ‘Oh, we’re gonna give kids hope’. And by the end, they were bailing on them and trying to extort, squeeze out the last little drop of cash they could out of them. Their chosen charter school company crashed this district.
J.W.: The main beneficiary of that consulting contract should have been a political ally and long-time friend of Corcoran’s, if everything had gone according to plan. But it didn’t, and that’s what prompted the federal investigation that was announced in June.
B.T.: The company they were doing the shady deal with – ahead of time, before the actual bid process – is called MGT. This guy named Tray Traviesa runs that. He’s a former legislator and former business partner of Corcoran, and they were going to use ESSER money to pay at least some of MGT’s contract through what’s called an external operator. That’s a term that gets used in public education in Florida quite a bit. They were going to impose this company on Jefferson County that didn’t want it. Interestingly, the law requires it to be a competitive bid. There’s lots of evidence that the bid was shaped before there was ever a process, and no one expected anybody else to apply, or to make a proposal. But then, all of a sudden, the vice chancellor of the Board of Education, who had kind of been in charge, her name is Melissa Ramsey. She and a sitting Board of Education member, Andy Tuck, formed a company kind of on the fly and put their own proposal. Well, you can’t bid on your own stuff – like you would be an employee of the Department of Education and bid on a DOE contract. As soon as they did that, all sorts of red flags went up, and Tuck resigned immediately, Ramsey pretty much did too, and Corcoran accepted their resignations and said they’ve got good hearts. But what they did by doing that was they blew up the really corrupt bid process, which was MGT. They wrote the RFQ from a draft agreement with MGT.
J.W.: In addition to the pre-written agreement, the bid process was only open for a week. The consultant incident preceded Corcoran’s resignation by about four months. But it wasn’t until a year later that the federal investigation began. Corcoran was not named in the grand jury investigation. But he was very close to all the proceedings the jury is investigating, according to Billy Townson.
B.T.: Richard Corcoran oversaw all of this. He was the commissioner of education. Jefferson County was his pet project, both as Speaker of the House and then as Commissioner of Education. Like he’s at the top of all of it, and Melissa Ramsey wrote in the investigation that she understood that Corcoran would personally be picking the winner.
At a recent talk he gave in Tampa, Corcoran brushed off a question about the bid rigging incident and investigation. Stay tuned for more WSLR News reporting on the grand jury investigation.
To listen to Cathy Antunes’ full interview with Billy Townsend, go to wslr.org, click on “archive“, and look for the Sept. 28 edition of The Detail show.
WSLR News aims to keep the local community informed with our half-hour local news show, quarterly newspaper and social media feeds. The local news broadcast airs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 6pm.
Thursday, December 7, 2023
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