Florida Virtual School Faces Leadership Crisis After Resignation, Investigations, Unexpected Death
Well-known Orlando attorney Frank Kruppenbacher’s ties to former Gov. Rick Scott helped him amass authority at the state-run Florida Virtual School until a clash with its new leader led to his abrupt departure last summer, touching off a crisis at the school considered a national pioneer in online education.
Six members of its board of trustees have resigned in the past six months, including two last week, and a former executive has called on the state to investigate the administrative turmoil.
Accusations against Robert Porter, who took over as the school’s top executive in June and died suddenly last month, have further complicated issues at the Orlando-based school, which received nearly $182 million in taxpayer money last year.
During his eight years as governor, Scott appointed some people to the FLVS board of trustees with ties to Kruppenbacher, who was the school’s general counsel. An audit found Kruppenbacher influenced who won some school business and circumvented procedures for giving out lucrative contracts—handing one such payment to his soon-to-be son-in-law. Employees at the school complained of a “culture of intimidation” and feared they could lose their jobs if they crossed Kruppenbacher, according to hundreds of pages of school documents related to an investigation into his behavior and interviews with 10 current or former employees, most of whom asked not to be named because they feared repercussions in the community.
Kruppenbacher, who until earlier this year also served as chairman of the board that oversees Orlando International Airport and performed legal work in recent years for at least a half dozen other government agencies, was named one of Orlando’s most powerful people seven years in a row by Orlando Magazine.
His influence at FLVS grew with Scott in office and, notably, after the school’s founder retired in 2014, said six former employees and a key former FLVS contractor.
“As far as moving forward with any initiatives within this organization, Frank was behind every door, every door,” said Ed Mansouri, the owner of the company that designed and installed in 2003 the technology for operating the online classes.
Mansouri’s contact with Kruppenbacher intensified from 2014 to 2016 and ultimately involved a rancorous dispute over renewing his technology firm’s contract. “Everything had to be run through Frank,” he said.
Kruppenbacher, 66, says he is the victim of a “smear campaign” by the school, which, at Porter’s direction, launched an investigation into his conduct in August. He declined to be interviewed for this story or to respond to written questions, citing FLVS refusal to allow him to break attorney-client privilege.
“I sure wish I could speak as I have a lot to say that would show the truth and protect students, teachers and the public,” Kruppenbacher said Wednesday in an e-mail.
Kruppenbacher’s supporters say Porter orchestrated the move against the attorney as part of a power play to secure his own position at the school.
Sarah Sprinkel, a Winter Park city commissioner who retired from FLVS in February, sent a letter to Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran in late March, after Porter died, asserting that Kruppenbacher was unfairly targeted with a “sham” investigation.
Sprinkel charged that Porter – first hired as a consultant, then interim executive and then president—initiated the investigation when Kruppenbacher challenged some of Porter’s leadership decisions. She accused Porter of promising Dhyana Ziegler, who’d been on the school’s board for 19 years, a paid position if she supported him for the school’s top job.
Ziegler led the FLVS presidential search committee that after spending more than $102,000 declared itself in November disappointed with the candidates. It then recommended Porter for the post that was to pay him $290,000. He became president in December, and in February Ziegler left the board to take a $200,000-a-year job as a FLVS senior executive director.
“This begs an investigation,” wrote Sprinkel, who worked with Kruppenbacher for years and, according to a Facebook post, celebrated a recent birthday with a party attended by both Kruppenbacher and his wife.
When Porter died in March, the board—down to four members, the minimum needed for a vote—picked Ziegler to become its new interim president.
Ziegler told the Sentinel that Sprinkel’s accusations are baseless and that Porter hired her because of her knowledge of the school.
“First of all, I had no deal with Dr. Porter,” she said.
Ziegler, a former dean at Florida A&M University who uses the title “Lady” because she says she was “knighted” in England in 2008 as a “Dame of Justice,” said she could not comment on Kruppenbacher because he has sued the school over public records.
Her goal now is to stabilize the organization.
“This has been a very, very stressful time for all of us,” Ziegler said.
Corcoran plans to ask the Legislature for an audit of the virtual school because of numerous concerns voiced about FLVS, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Education told the Orlando Sentinel.
John Morgan, the influential attorney for whom Kruppenbacher has worked part time since late 2010, said his firm has told FLVS that it intends to sue on Kruppenbacher’s behalf, arguing the school has unfairly tried to “discredit and besmirch” its former lawyer.
“People are going to owe Frank Kruppenbacher a huge apology,” Morgan said.
The FLVS investigation found Kruppenbacher likely made off-color comments about women’s bodies and asked FLVS employees to perform “excessive” work for his outside businesses. It also questioned his absences without repercussions from the job that paid him a $210,000 salary. He traveled extensively as airport chairman to places as far away as China, Israel and Argentina. The investigation and a companion audit were conducted by outside firms and released in December.
‘A Complicated Web’
The virtual school launched in 1997 as a pilot program between Orange and Alachua counties’ school districts. Kruppenbacher, then the attorney for the Orange County School Board, did FLVS’ legal work, too, but he did not initially have an out-sized role in its operations.
The online school now serves more than 200,000 students, most in Florida but some across the country. Every public high school student in Florida must take at least one online class to graduate. FLVS offers more than 180.
In the summer of 2011, Kruppenbacher, who had left the Orange school district, became a full-time employee of the virtual school as its general counsel and chief administrative officer while continuing his work for Morgan & Morgan and other clients.
Scott, the former hospital executive who vaulted into the governor’s office out of political obscurity, had just been elected the year before. Kruppenbacher was an early supporter of Scott, hosting a fundraiser and serving on his inauguration committee. The two became so friendly that the governor and his wife would later attend the wedding of Kruppenbacher’s daughter. Now a U.S. senator, Scott did not respond to questions sent to his office.
At FLVS, Kruppenbacher sometimes showed off his cell phone screen so others could see that Scott was calling, several former employees said.
“It was like a switch flipped,” said one former virtual school official, speaking of the time after Scott took office and Kruppenbacher several months later took on a full-time role at the school.
Scott’s appointments of board members to the virtual school reveal a web of relationships with Kruppenbacher:
Robert Gidel, who works for an investment firm, was appointed by Scott in 2015. Kruppenbacher listed Gidel as a reference when he applied to be on a state panel in 2016. Both men served last year on Republican candidate Ashley Moody’s finance committee during her successful attorney general campaign and both serve on the board of directors of the James Madison Institute, a conservative Tallahassee-based think tank. Gidel resigned as chairman of the FLVS board last week, but said he would stay on until Gov. Ron DeSantis appoints a replacement.
Though he and Kruppenbacher have “many mutual friends in Orlando,” Gidel said in an email, he knew Scott long before he applied to join the FLVS board. “Frank K had nothing to do with my request.”
In September Gidel received a copy of the $40,000 Kruppenbacher investigation, but he didn’t share it with the board for three months. “At the end of the day,” he said during a December board meeting, “ … we got to protect the, you know, the entity, we got to protect employees, we got to protect Frank.”
In response to questions from the Sentinel, Gidel said the matters raised by employees were “serious” and the board worked to address them by hiring an independent law firm to investigate.
Linda Pellegrini, whom Scott appointed to the board in 2011 and became chairwoman April 1, remarked during a meeting that she was on the board because of Kruppenbacher’s friendship with her husband, according to two people who heard the comment. Norman Pellegrini is a former managing director at Citi Group and had done work with Kruppenbacher at Orange schools. Pellegrini, president of Pellegrini Homes, said in a brief interview that she did not make such a remark and declined to discuss the school.
Though not school matters, Kruppenbacher represented Pellegrini and Ziegler, the new executive, in separate minor traffic cases while both women were on the FLVS board, according to court records from Orange and Leon counties. Both cases were dismissed.
Marva Johnson, vice president for Charter Communications, was appointed in 2013. On retainer as a lawyer for Charter, Kruppenbacher last year billed the company $7,500 a month with at least one invoice sent to the attention of Johnson, according to school records. He also listed Johnson as a reference when he applied for legal work at Osceola County schools. She left the board in 2014 when Scott tapped her for the state board of education and was replaced by another Charter employee. Johnson did not return calls seeking comment.
Robert Saltsman, a Winter Park attorney and accountant, landed a spot on the FLVS board in 2015. Saltsman is a prominent lobbyist at the airport, where Kruppenbacher led the board until February. Saltsman represents many of the largest companies that do business there. He resigned in December, the day after the investigative report on Kruppenbacher was publicly released, because he said he no longer had the time to devote to a second term.
Those overlapping school-airport connections, Saltsman said in response to e-mailed questions, did not pose a conflict when he and Kruppenbacher voted on contracts that affected each other at the virtual school and the airport board. An airport attorney wrote an opinion in response to questions from the Sentinel that supported Saltsman’s stance that no conflict existed.
The board was Kruppenbacher’s boss, but his personnel file only includes three performance evaluations for seven years of work—and those were blank.
Ben Wilcox of Integrity Florida, a Tallahassee-based ethics watchdog group, said board members with close ties to a top official at the school could mean they aren’t focused on what should be their chief concern: looking out for taxpayers rather than personal interests.
“It’s really problematic,” he said. “It’s a complicated web to try to untangle. It certainly seems like the lines are being blurred here.”
‘Culture of Fear’
As Kruppenbacher’s authority at FLVS grew, he created what some employees called a “culture of fear” and a “toxic work environment,” the school’s investigative documents show.
The Sentinel reviewed more than 300 pages of documents, including 48 pages of handwritten notes, gathered by the FordHarrison law firm. The investigative report and notes do not include the names of the dozen employees who complained about Kruppenbacher, as they are confidential under state whistle-blower law.
But the documents repeatedly note employees’ frustrations with the trustees. They said trustees seemed to defer to Kruppenbacher, who was in charge of legal matters as well as audit, human resources and technology departments.
“No accountability. No board supervision,” one person told the attorneys, according to the notes.
“If you crossed Frank, he would get you fired,” read another.
People interviewed by the Sentinel offered similar accounts.
“I could see that Frank was in charge,” said one, adding the feeling was “Frank ran the show at Orange schools, and then he was running the show there.”
Employees told the FordHarrison attorneys that Kruppenbacher belittled those who complained about his off-color jokes by calling them “crybabies,” according to the notes.
Jennifer Whiting was chief technology innovation officer and the school’s longest-serving employee with nearly 21 years of service. She told the Orlando Sentinel that meetings with Kruppenbacher were replete with off-color stories that “we had to endure in discomfort, sometimes for hours, to get to the work that we needed done.”
FLVS did not renew her contract last year, following a data breach in late 2017.
Some of the findings in the FordHarrison report prompted an in-house audit that was then reviewed by the firm Frazier & Deeter. That audit noted how Kruppenbacher in 2015 hired his daughter’s boyfriend, now husband, to investigate a school executive, paying him $3,500 to take photos at a “high-end” restaurant, though it did not explain why such an investigation was needed. Kruppenbacher’s daughter is an employee at the school.
The audit also questioned other contracts approved by Kruppenbacher, including one with Carahsoft Technology, a firm paid nearly $602,000 over two years. That contract was approved “without multiple bids to ensure the best pricing” because of “pressure exerted” by Kruppenbacher, who wanted to “utilize this particular vendor,” the audit report said.
The audit noted that Carahsoft’s Tallahassee lobbyist is Rob Fields. Fields is the stepson of Michael Olenick, a former board chairman appointed by Scott in 2013.
Olenick, an attorney, performed legal work at Orange County schools when Kruppenbacher worked there. He left the FLVS board in 2015 when Scott asked him to serve on the State Board of Education. Neither Olenick nor Fields responded to requests for comment.
Fields also was paid $113,225 to serve for four months as the school’s interim technology chief in 2018. His consulting firms also billed the school $5,500 a month for 18 months, the audit found, under agreements approved outside “the normal procurement process.”
But at the trustees’ Dec. 11 meeting, Gidel and Saltsman defended the technology contracts, saying the 2017 breach required the school move quickly to find solutions.
The attorneys’ notes also showed one employee told them “Rob Fields really saved the day” after the breach.
The attorneys concluded that some of the financial allegations—including Kruppenbacher’s extensive travel—would require an additional audit to untangle. The board, however, did not authorize that, saying Kruppenbacher’s departure made those concerns moot. The investigative report and documents noted Kruppenbacher took “extended time off for trips that are not FLVS related” without “properly accounting” for that vacation time.
Kruppenbacher was paid more than $25,000 for six weeks of unused vacation when he left FLVS, a spokesperson said.
Kruppenbacher’s power at the school came to a sudden end in the summer after he clashed with Porter, who’d been appointed interim leader following the then-president’s resignation in June, school documents showed. Before that, Porter had a part-time contract to provide strategic planning to the FLVS trustees and was also executive director at the University of Central Florida’s Executive Development Center.
The attorneys’ notes reviewed by the Sentinel reference a “heated meeting” between Kruppenbacher and Porter, but the subject matter and timing is unclear. One employee told the attorneys Porter was the first person at the school they had seen stand up to Kruppenbacher.
Gidel, in an email, said Porter’s death was “devastating” to the school and credited him with devising a “strategic plan that would make FLVS more client focused and more efficient in doing so.”
Porter went to the board with employee complaints about Kruppenbacher Kruppenbacher resigned in August on the same day the board agreed to hire FordHarrison to look into the matter. He later said he’d been locked out of his office days earlier.
In response to the investigation, the board has upgraded FLVS harassment policies, eliminated the position of in-house general counsel, moved to provide more supervision of senior managers and closed what officials called “holes” in the school’s procurement process.
Today the seven-seat Board of Trustees has just four members, the bare minimum required to take a vote, but two have said they will leave the board as soon as DeSantis appoints new members. Scott appointed two new board members just before he left office in January, but one resigned less than two months later on the night before he was to attend his first meeting after learning about the fallout from Kruppenbacher’s tenure.
Seminole County Sheriff Capt. Kip Beacham, the other recent Scott appointee, said he remains committed to the school.
But since his first trustee meeting in February, he found the board “almost like a fraternity or sorority,” he said. “Everybody who’s been on the board is probably part of the problem.”