Emerging Elitism

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

MacLain says he took seriously the existence of an unauthorized bus-maintenance garage complete with a diesel-fuel storage tank operating on the grounds of a school. "This could have been a very dangerous situation," he recalls.

At the time, he wrote to the council, "Because of the Fire Department's concern over the fuel storage tank, the containment area not sealed, the drain [having] no shut-off valve and draining into the canal, [the existence of] a hole in the drain and lack of fire extinguishers, I could not allow any further procrastination."

On March 14 of that year, the Plantation code-enforcement board voted to fine the school a total of $1250 a day, or $250 a day for each of five violations relating to the building of the running track and the operation of the bus-maintenance facility. It was a hard-knuckle ploy to force the school to find some other place to park the buses or at least some other place to maintain them.

And it was a ploy the school fought. Laurie tried to argue that he'd been parking the buses on school property since 1975 -- before the city of Plantation had even been incorporated -- and he felt he'd already gotten all the approval he needed to continue doing so.

On the other hand, those fines were piling up daily, and MacLain had found yet another way to apply pressure. According to the South Florida Building Code, a company that's not in compliance with codes isn't supposed to get any further construction permits until it fixes the problem, but Laurie still had ambitious plans for the school.

Meanwhile back on campus, the school was gearing up to start the year as usual. Students were stocking up on shirts with Heritage logos; kids with weird hairdos were getting haircuts; teachers were planning classes. And on August 29, the school made a hiring decision, one that city activist Nick Perris likes to call "judicious." It hired city council president Rae Carole Armstrong to teach geometry.

Today Armstrong is the odds-on favorite to replace long-time mayor Frank Veltri in next March's elections. Back then she'd been serving on the city council for 11 years, occupying a seat that for the eight years previous to her election had belonged to her husband, Tom.

She still works at American Heritage (though she says she'll quit her school job this winter to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest). But that's not due to fantastic teaching skills. "She'd come in and lecture and it was very... um, it wasn't an exciting class. It was 'just get the job done,'" recalls former student Bachman. "She wasn't one of my favorites."

Says Dorre White, former vice president of the parent-teacher organization with two children attending the school: "I only knew she was not effective as a teacher. She spent one year teaching math and that was it. They took her out of there."

Armstrong was bumped over to the admissions office, where the ability to draw on a 20-year network of political connections counts more than performance in front of a class. For the record Armstrong denies she was an ineffective teacher and says her subsequent transfer to the school's admissions department was simply a matter of moving to a better job. And Laurie says the notion that Armstrong's initial hiring had any connection to construction-related issues is absurd. "Look, I didn't have anything to do with her hiring," he says. "Personally I'd rather have her on the council voting than working for the school and abstaining."

It's true that, once her contract with the school was signed, Armstrong took meticulous care to abstain from voting on school-related issues. But at the very least, she skirted the edges of accepted ethical guidelines.

"No county, municipal, or other local public officer shall vote in an official capacity upon any measure... [that] he or she knows would inure to the special private gain or loss of any principal by whom the officer is retained.... Such public officer shall, prior to the vote being taken, publicly state to the assembly the nature of the officer's interest in the matter from which he or she is abstaining from voting and, within 15 days after the vote occurs, disclose the nature of his or her interest as a public record...," says Chapter 112 of the Florida Code of Ethics For Public Officers and Employees.

Back up to August 17, 1994, or 12 days before Armstrong signed her teaching contract with American Heritage. At that night's city council meeting, heavyweight Plantation developer Emerson Allsworth (whose grandkids attend American Heritage) stood up and asked the council to approve the school's plans to remodel its computer-science classrooms. Manny MacLain was on record opposing the request. He was still concerned about continuing violations regarding the diesel tanks and the buses.

Armstrong joined with three other council members to override MacLain and issue the permit. Although the minutes indicate she made a pro forma declaration of having discussed the issue of zoning compliance with Laurie, she didn't say anything about getting a teaching job with the school.

When questioned about the matter, Armstrong at first said she'd applied for the job in "mid-August" of that year. Reminded of the August 17 vote, she says she must have sent in her application in "late August."

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