Emerging Elitism

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

Meanwhile something strange happened to the accruing fines the school was facing that year. They were neither confirmed nor overturned by the council but instead quietly forgotten. Minutes of the monthly code-enforcement board meetings indicate the fines were continued from meeting to meeting until they simply disappeared from the agenda in January 1995.

That's not the usual procedure, says councilman Merritt, who says he was unaware the fines hadn't been paid at some point. "Without a formal vote to forgive those fines, they're still there, as far as I'm concerned," he says.

At a rate of $1250 a day, the fines should be just about $2.15 million by the time this issue of New Times hits the streets. Meanwhile many of the same things that had so annoyed the school's neighbors in 1995 are still annoying them in 1998. The buses are still parked on the property, the running track was completed and is now in use, there's still a diesel fuel storage tank on school grounds, and the school has gone right ahead with its other construction plans.

"I don't understand how they could just flout all those rules and laws and then end up not even having to pay a fine," says Cheryl Szary, who lives across the street from the school. Since it began expanding in the mid-'90s, Szary says she's had to deal not only with all the usual problems that go with living near a school -- traffic backing up at the beginning and end of every school day, kids taking shortcuts across back yards, lights and noise from sports games and other school functions -- but also all the usual problems that go with living near a construction site.

In 1995 Szary organized a petition drive opposing the school's continued expansion. Signed by 70 percent of the families living in the neighborhood south of the school, the petition stated: "We the undersigned believe that any more expansion to American Heritage School will be detrimental to our property values and lifestyle. We strongly oppose any more expansions to American Heritage School."

However, Szary has never been able to persuade a majority of the city council to agree with her. "They think it's so great, to have this private school here in Plantation. Everybody's so happy about it, and they don't see it for what it is -- a commercial venture that's trying to take over a residential neighborhood," she says.

Szary is convinced that her real nemesis is Rae Carole Armstrong. Armstrong, she says, has served as a quiet, behind-the-scenes influence to help smooth the school's relations with city officials. Hogwash, responds Armstrong. "I feel strongly about education in this city," she says. "And American Heritage is a wonderful school."

American Heritage isn't the only school that's been trying to expand, however. In 1993 Armstrong was one of the most forceful voices arguing against another growing school's request to create more classroom space. That school was South Plantation High School, where 2800 students -- 1000 more than American Heritage has -- are squeezed onto the same-sized campus.

South Plantation High is where Szary's daughter Nicole goes to school, and Nicole has seen firsthand how much more crowded the school has gotten over the past several years. "You walk down the stairs, and it's like you get shoved from side to side," she says.

In 1993 South Plantation High School approached Plantation city officials with its own proposal for expansion. That year the school had found itself in serious need of additional space for its student population, which had reached 1730 and was rapidly climbing. So district officials proposed swapping a five-acre, city-owned vacant lot across the street from the school for district-owned land elsewhere in the city.

"We presented the city with several options for working a deal," recalls Charles Fink, school property and real estate manager. "There was a proposal to just outright buy the land, and there was a proposal for some kind of land swap."

Although the proposal faced loud opposition from neighbors who didn't want to give up any green space, some who were on the council at the time recall trying to figure out a way to work a compromise. "I helped form a committee of community members to see what could be worked out," recalls Ralph D. Merritt III, the former council member who is now considering taking on Armstrong in the mayoral race.

After a series of meetings and letter exchanges that went on for nearly four years, the city council killed the deal, largely because of Armstrong's "vehement" opposition to providing any city land to the county high school, says Merritt.

Armstrong denies any parallel between her support of American Heritage's expansion and her opposition to South Plantation's expansion. In the South Plantation case, "this was city land," she says. "This land was designated as parkland."

Despite that designation, the parcel, Armstrong acknowledges, was never anything more than an empty lot. Today, five years later, Merritt says, "It's still a dump."

Asked about the differences between the public school system and American Heritage, Laurie puts on a sideways grin and says in his characteristic drawl, "Ninety-seven days."

He's talking about how long it took him to build a clock tower on the corner of Flamingo and Broward this past summer, not to mention a state-of-the-art science building right next to it. "We had to have it done by the time the semester started," he says.

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