Pensacola, Florida
Monday July 22nd 2019

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Outtakes—Untouchable Thomas

By Rick Outzen

In June 2018, the Triumph Gulf Coast board of directors approved a $2.3 million grant for the Escambia County School District and Pensacola State College to train 1,145 high school and college students so that they would earn industry certifications in IT/Cybersecurity, Advanced Manufacturing and Aviation/Aerospace by 2024. PSC agreed to contribute $2.7 million, and a DEO Job Growth Grant would give $1.9 million in cash—$6.9 million in total.

The only catch was School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas didn’t like the “clawback” clauses, which would have required the district to repay Triumph if it failed to meet the performance goals. He negotiated with Triumph for over a year, only to walk away from the money—saying he would rather do it himself.

I wasn’t surprised because Thomas has a history of misusing grants and discontinuing programs before being held accountable for how he used the funds. In 2009, the district was awarded $945,000 for a Discipline Alternatives to Zero-Tolerance project. Thomas dropped out of the program in the second year because he disliked the performance metrics. The district walked away from $600,000.

In 2010, Thomas and the school district accepted a Race to the Top grant, $8,373,647, to set up Warrington Middle and Montclair Elementary as the models for an instructional improvement system. Today, the two schools are among the lowest-performing schools in Florida.

The question isn’t why Thomas rejected $2.3 million. It’s why do the business community and other governmental bodies continue to let him get away with it.

Where are the Greater Pensacola Chamber, First Place Partners, Pensacola-Escambia Development Commission, Mayor Grover Robinson, Pensacola City Council and Board of Escambia County Commissioners?

We all know the dirty secret in Escambia County is our future is held back by our public education system. People are moving to downtown and West Pensacola. Where are their kids going to elementary school? Global Learning Academy? Not hardly. How about middle school? Warrington or Workman? Get serious. And high school? Pensacola High? Only if they can get in the IB program.

Yes, the schools in white neighborhoods have thrived during Thomas’ reign, but our schools in more impoverished areas have fallen further behind. Meanwhile, the district administration has become entangled with cronyism. Its purchasing department has been caught twice rigging million-dollar bids.

The district leadership has no idea how to teach students from economically disadvantaged homes. Outside firms have been hired to run the lowest-performing schools.

Thomas makes his decisions, and the school board rubber-stamps them with the knowledge that community leaders will be silent. No one will come to their meetings to protest. No resolutions of condemnation will be passed. And the children of Escambia County will continue to suffer because of it.