Emerging Elitism

American Heritage School survives despite near financial collapse, angry neighbors, and a questionable relationship with a Plantation politician

But while "conservative" may be the academic watchword at American Heritage, as an adjective it fails to do justice to the frantic ambition with which Laurie has turned a series of scattered storefront classrooms into the largest and fastest-growing private school in Broward County. Considering the school has had near brushes with bankruptcy, clashes with the IRS, and nasty feuds with various neighbors and city officials, a better word to describe Laurie's business style might well be radical.

Another might be controlling. No question this school has been Laurie's baby since the beginning. Originally a series of after-school programs, the school went full-time in 1971 when Laurie quit his job with the Broward School District in a fit of revulsion over the district's decision to embrace the "open school" concept, a faddish notion holding that walls between classrooms were bad things.

Recalls Laurie, then a principal at North Side Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale: "The system was already overcrowded, and the idea that you could accomplish anything by putting 800 students into a building with no interior partitions was just ludicrous."

With an initial stake of $10,000 of his personal savings, Laurie bought the old Bethany Presbyterian Church building on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale and threw out the hippies who'd been squatting in it. The venture was an immediate success, as parents who were equally repulsed by "open schools" pulled their kids out of public education to follow him. The first year the school started with 65 students; the second with 350; the third with 500. In the fall of 1973, Laurie opened a second campus in Hollywood and, a year after that, another in Wilton Manors.

Laurie reveled in his newfound administrative freedom. Florida law barely touches private education beyond requiring that private schools register with the state. The real regulatory bodies are accrediting associations that a school may join or not as it chooses. (American Heritage is accredited by the respected Association of Independent Schools of Florida and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.)

Freed from public school bureaucracy, Laurie lost no time in instilling the school with his own educational tastes and preferences. Touting a policy of "complete acceptance," he instituted a no-cut policy for sports teams and eliminated auditions as admissions criteria for fine arts classes. He also began the process of building what is today the only private fine arts program in the state to regularly compete in and win state-sponsored theater and band competitions.

In 1973 the school bought what would become its most meaningful piece of real estate: a single acre of pasture on the corner of West Broward Boulevard and Flamingo Road in the far western reaches of Broward County. Why Plantation? Simple demographics. "I read the studies, and it seemed to me that development was going to center on this location," Laurie recalls.

At first the bet worked out well, with the school benefiting from the westward expansion of middle-to-upper-class suburbs. As families poured into western Broward County, new cities such as Weston, Sunrise, and Coral Springs sprang up, as did thoroughfares such as the Sawgrass Expressway and Interstate 595.

Then and now, the most serious competition for students comes from Pine Crest School in northeast Fort Lauderdale. Pine Crest, founded in 1935, is generally acknowledged as the best private secondary school in South Florida. "Pine Crest is highly competitive, with lots of structure and lots of pressure," says Martha Moses, an educational consultant based in Miami. "They don't want failure, they want to place a lot of kids in the Ivies."

Pine Crest has a built-in advantage over American Heritage in that it is organized as a nonprofit corporation, which means parents and graduates receive significant tax advantages when they donate to the school. American Heritage by contrast was then and is now a private, for-profit corporation. Although this cuts down on resources, it leaves Bill Laurie firmly in control. "I've never wanted to answer to a board," he says. "I'd rather have the freedom to make my own decisions and make sure things get done quickly." As for profit: He says he has always sunk any surplus back into the school.

Despite competitive disadvantages, enrollment kept climbing steadily throughout the '70s and '80s as Laurie added classrooms to accommodate the growth. However, the luck was not to last.

In the late '80s, the school found itself unable to make payments on its debt, which at the time consisted mainly of two mortgages that together totaled more than $10 million. Parents got their first inkling of a problem when Laurie approached them with what he called "an opportunity," meaning a chance to invest in the school. He told them straight that the school was in trouble, but he also said that he wasn't seeking handouts; instead, he was marketing investment vehicles in the form of high-interest notes.

Paul Tavilla recalls this gambit as "an act of desperation. [Laurie] was offering crazy interest rates -- 19, 20 percent -- to try to be competitive, and he was just giving away the store, just digging his hole deeper and deeper." Eventually the school wound up with about 80 high-interest bondholders and an unpaid tax liability that by late 1990 had risen to a level of nearly a quarter of a million dollars. (The tax liability was eventually paid off after years of making negotiated payments.)

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