The Sex Million Dollar Man

You shelled out a lot of money to women who complained about principal Michael Exelbert. And you didn't even know it.

Jeanne Vazquez's EEEO complaint, filed the same day as Davis's, was nearly identical. Soon after she began working at the Merrick Center in 1987, she wrote, Exelbert had started an "ongoing pattern of physical and verbal sexual harassment." She claimed to have performed oral sex on the principal; like Davis, she noted their trysts would take place "on school grounds and at other locations."

And in March Cheryl Pertnoy lodged another EEEO complaint against Exelbert, describing harassment, but no forced sexual acts. In May all five women filed lawsuits. Shortly before the June school-board meeting, the district substantiated the Overholser, Davis, Pertnoy, and Vazquez allegations.

Despite the fact that administrators confirmed the harassment complaints against Exelbert, superintendent Roger Cuevas inexplicably concluded a job change was suitable punishment.

Why shouldn't Michael Exelbert be happy?
Why shouldn't Michael Exelbert be happy?

At the June 1999 meeting, board members took up the proposed million-dollar settlement for the Exelbert plaintiffs and the demotions of Exelbert and Clarke. Board member G. Holmes Braddock was steamed. Saying he wanted to make a strong stand against such behavior, he suggested disallowing the transfers.

Board members Manty Sabates Morse and Betsy Kaplan voted in favor of Braddock's motion. Kaplan, who declares she once considered Exelbert a friend, now says she would have preferred to see both men out of the public school system. "I felt terrible [voting not to renew Exelbert's contract] but I felt I had to," Kaplan offers. "I think it's unfair to keep employees on staff, at any salary, who have digressed so far from acceptable behavior." Then-chairman Stinson, a self-described friend and mentor to Clarke, said he believed a pay cut for the men was punishment enough. Stinson and five other board members pushed through the job change.

Exelbert might get his comeuppance from the State of Florida yet. On April 4 education commissioner Tom Gallagher filed a complaint against him, alleging the ex-principal's actions -- verbally harassing female employees, forcing a woman identified as "J.D." (Judy Davis) to have sex with him, and creating a hostile work environment -- violated three Florida statutes and seven administrative rules. Gallagher recommended the state's Education Practices Commission "impose an appropriate penalty," which could include a fine, suspension, or even revocation of his teaching certificate. (Without a license Exelbert could continue with the transportation department.)

And while the litigation against Exelbert in his capacity as a school principal is finished, he could still find himself in court. Exelbert for many years served as an officer -- including a stint as president -- of Temple Zion Israelite Center. Remember those "other locations" mentioned by Davis and Vazquez? Temple Zion was one of them, says Jerry Jaramillo, a Tampa attorney representing the two women. Jaramillo's clients are contemplating a suit against the temple.

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