Emerging Elitism

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

Worse, the school was losing students. In the space of a single year, from the 1989-90 to the 1990-91 school year, enrollment dropped from 756 to 628, a wounding 17 percent decline. Laurie attributes the decline in students to a combination of economic problems and the loss of scholarship money. To compensate, Laurie was forced to begin laying off teachers and aides.

The school was saved by Tavilla, who put up $5.8 million of his own money to buy the school's two mortgages. To protect his investment, he set up an office on school grounds and moved in. His first endeavor: to improve the school's marketing.

"They really didn't know much about the most rudimentary aspects of marketing," he says. "They had these old swing sets that looked kind of rundown, which nobody had really paid much attention to. Well, you couldn't bring parents in to show them the school with those things sitting there." Under Tavilla's direction the swing sets were ripped out and replaced with a colorful play area where parents could leave their toddlers while touring the school.

By 1995 enrollment was again climbing, and the school was able to secure a new mortgage to pay off Tavilla and the other bondholders. "I never really thought he'd be able to pull it off," Tavilla now says. "But the man is like a pit bull; once he gets something in his teeth, he just doesn't let go."

Back from the brink of destruction, Laurie didn't waste any time getting into trouble again. The new mortgage was for $15 million, enough not only to pay off Tavilla but also to allow Laurie to tackle the next phase of his plan to turn American Heritage into the Choate of South Florida.

Beginning in 1995, new buildings and facilities began popping up on campus like mushrooms. The school added a science building, a field house, a clock tower, and various classrooms while adding more than 1000 students. No other member of the Association of Independent Schools of Florida has come close to achieving such a furious rate of growth over the same period, say local educational consultants.

Laurie is touchy about the subject. He doesn't want to come off as some kind of megalomaniac empire-builder. "It's not been growth just for growth's sake," he insists, slipping into salesman mode. "But to offer a facility that provides the best-quality education that we possibly can provide for our students."

But the school's growth hasn't come without cost to the surrounding neighborhood. When Henry Latimer built his house 19 years ago just south of a large wooded lot owned by the school, he was looking for "space and foliage," he says. "Bill Laurie told me that lot would never be developed," recalls Latimer, now the managing partner for Eckert Seamans Cherin & Millott.

Then one morning in the spring of 1994, Latimer awoke to the sight and sound of graders growling and scraping on the lot that abuts his property to the north. He wasn't the only alarmed resident. The whole neighborhood could hear the construction, and someone apparently decided to drop a dime.

On July 21, Plantation Acres Improvement District (PAID) engineer Ray Chester issued a stop-work order after an inspection revealed "large amounts of fill material being dumped on school property without proper permitting... Proposed construction and improvements appear to be under way also without any approved plans or knowledge of this district."

Ten days later Chester returned in response to another complaint and discovered that the grading had started up again. "Stop order being violated," he scrawled in the margin of his field report, followed by his signature and the date "8-1-94."

But that wasn't the only violation Chester found -- or even the most serious one. Since the mid-'70s, American Heritage had owned and operated a fleet of buses that it had parked and maintained on a gravel parking lot just north of a canal called the C-1 that bisected the school property parallel to West Broward Boulevard. Taking a look at this bus-maintenance facility, Chester cited Laurie "for having installed discharge pipe from fuel containment area into the C-1 canal. This pipe was ordered to be removed immediately." The C-1 canal, according to PAID district engineer David Fradley, is "one of the major canals in our district, and it runs right through their campus."

This citation caught the attention of Plantation Building and Zoning Director M.A. (Manny) MacLain. MacLain was surprised to learn that bus maintenance was going on at all on school property. Several years before, he'd warned Laurie not to try to operate a bus garage without city approval, and Laurie had assured him that all they were doing was parking the buses and perhaps doing the occasional minor repair.

Now it turned out that what the school considered a minor repair apparently included "putting in a new engine," recalls former councilman Ralph D. Merritt III, who has received "numerous" complaints over the years from neighbors of the school.

So MacLain got tough, demanding documentation of ownership of the buses, a written description of their intended uses, and proof that Laurie had gotten approval from the city utilities and fire departments. In vain. "The Applicant never provided the information...," he wrote in a memo to the city council.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help