Emerging Elitism

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

There's something off kilter about the cover of the brochure for the elite private academy known as the American Heritage School, and at first it's hard to pinpoint what the problem is, exactly.

The cover design is plain to a fault -- just a simple, oblique-view photograph of the front of the main campus administration building on a sunny day, with a black bar running across the top of the page and the name of the school spelled out in gold. Overall, it's nothing flashy, nothing head-turning, unless your head is easily turned by neoclassical stodginess.

Then it hits you -- it's that tree. That tree in the foreground. That tree is strangely... leafless.

Also frondless. That's no palm tree, nor is it a melaleuca or an Australian pine or any other kind of tree that would offer a clue to the school's location in the heart of South Florida. What that is, is an oak tree. Suddenly you realize that, other than the sunshine, nothing in the photograph seems to have anything to do with South Florida.

A half-day tour of the actual campus (conducted in a nifty electric golf cart driven by school founder and president Bill Laurie) strengthens one's sense of geographic dislocation. Not only are there no palm trees visible in the heart of this 35-acre campus, there are no Day-Glo colors, no Art Deco flourishes, no buildings constructed in the style of Mediterranean villas -- in short, nothing that would give a visitor any impression of actually being in Broward County.

It's not as if the school couldn't afford to dress itself up and put on some South Florida style. With 1800 students from kindergarten through 12th grade paying an average annual tuition of $8700 each, it's making money. Laurie has spent an estimated $10 million in the past five years on new construction for the private school, and he's not done yet. (Next up: a performing arts center that will seat 800 people, which is more than even Parker Playhouse can hold.)

And while Laurie likes to boast that he lets parents work off their bills by serving as teachers' aides, you can bet you won't find American Heritage parents like Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne or state Democratic Party chief Mitch Caesar clapping erasers for discounts. Anyway, the budget is based on an expectation that at least 90 percent of students will bring in the full retail tuition rate.

So if Bill Laurie wanted palm trees, he could afford them. Instead, he's constructed his campus in a dry, spinsterish Colonial style that one imagines would make Sam Adams feel right at home. The administration building (the one featured on the brochure cover), for instance, sports a 15-foot-deep portico the outer facing of which consists of a huge wooden triangle supported by four commanding white Greek Corinthian columns. The windows are set off by old-fashioned square wooden shutters. The construction materials are red brick and white-painted wood.

Seeing this Williamsburg museum gift shop of a building basking in the Florida sunshine provokes the sort of cognitive dissonance you'd imagine by hearing Jimmy Buffett play at a Harvard convocation. But then when you learn of the school's history of financial dealings, nasty feuds, and political intrigue, you feel better. There's a little South Florida in the place after all.

To hear Bill Laurie tell it, there's a simple reason his school buildings are built this way. "I really like brick," he says. No surprise there; he also likes solid yet outmoded blue blazers with shiny gold buttons and old-fashioned rimless glasses with lenses tinted a strange, archaic yellow.

"That classical image -- like a New England campus, like Harvard -- that's his style," says Paul Tavilla, Laurie's former business partner and the parent of two children currently attending the school.

But of course there's more to the choice of building materials than simple preference. "All the Colonial architecture is meant to convey a sense of tradition, conservatism," says former student Catherine Bachman. "It also tells you that this is a serious place."

The place certainly seems serious enough. "They have drug dogs come in while you're sitting in class and come down each row sniffing your backpack," says Ericka Krupka, a 14-year-old ninth grader. "If there are troublemakers, they get rid of them."

Non-troublemakers are issued photo identification cards ("to be carried at all times, to be presented upon demand," warns the student/parent handbook) and required to adhere to a strict dress code. Shirts must be "regulation cotton-knit (red, black, or white with Heritage logo)". Socks must also be "red, white, or black" (no logo required). Hats are out. As for trousers, "the 'baggy' look is not in keeping with our traditional, conservative look."

The dress code is a visual reflection of a philosophical approach that disdains fads in favor of tried-and-true methods, says upper-school Principal Patricia A. Butts, who has been Laurie's partner at the school since 1982. At American Heritage, children are taught to read phonetically, not ebonically. Grades are based on the traditional letter scale that skips directly from D to F. There is no "E" for effort on the report card.

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.)

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.

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."

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.

As a former public school principal, he knows there'd be no way to accomplish that in a county school. (For the purpose of comparison, a Broward School District task force announced last May that the infrastructure of Dillard High School was falling apart, and it's still holding meetings to decide what to do about it.)

There are other telling differences between public and private schools. High-school classes at American Heritage contain no more than 16 students, and often far fewer. Catherine Bachman, who was co-valedictorian last year, recalls a meeting with advisors at the beginning of her senior year, in which they asked her what courses she wanted to take that year. When she came up with a couple ideas for courses the school had never offered, administrators went ahead and created them -- custom-designed them just for her and a couple other top students who also expressed interest. In one of her classes, an upper-level Spanish course, she was the only student in the class.

How many students at public high schools get a one-to-one student-teacher ratio? None at South Plantation High, where the combined 1997 SAT scores averaged 40 points lower than at American Heritage.

But then it's superstar students like Catherine Bachman who hold the key to success for ambitious private schools like American Heritage. Without a reputation for placing graduates in top colleges, a school that charges nine grand a student is going to have a hard time filling its classrooms. With Bachman's grades and accomplishments, she had a shot at getting into a top Ivy League university and in fact was accepted at Cornell University, the only one to which she applied. (Eventually she opted to take a scholarship package put together by the University of Miami.)

Parents do pay attention. Last year Katrina Zalewsky, a doctor with two children at American Heritage, tried to convince her daughter, Magdalene, to leave there and go to Pine Crest instead. Why? "I talked to a recruiter from Harvard," Zalewsky says, "And she had not heard of American Heritage School."

Although the curriculum is designed for college placement -- offering advanced placement courses in English, French, Spanish, calculus, American history, economics, government, biology, chemistry, and physics -- compared to Pine Crest, "they've got a ways to go," says Moses, the educational consultant. American Heritage parent Dorre White says the quality of the hard-sciences curriculum especially could stand some improvement. "Their fine arts and drama departments are topnotch, but they could stand to work on their academics."

Magdalene Zalewsky is, in fact, another Catherine Bachman in the making -- that is to say, another student whom any private school would want on its campus. Just 14 years old, she speaks three languages (English, Polish, and German), plays basketball, and has an air of calm maturity that belies her years. (In the end, she decided to stay at American Heritage to stay with her friends.)

Of course the big losers in the competition for top students like Zalewsky and Bachman are the public schools, which miss out on the positive influences such serious and mature students can bring. In Bachman's junior year at American Heritage, "I took a psychology course at Broward Community College, and I was amazed! People in the class could not write!"

Although 14-year-old sophomore Nicole Szary lives two doors down from Magdalene Zalewsky and across the street from the American Heritage campus, Nicole has never gone to that school. Has she ever thought about applying to American Heritage? With a small shrug, she replies, "No, it's not really my style." For one thing she likes her Tommy Hilfiger jeans too much. They'd be banned at American Heritage. "I'm happy where I'm at."

It's just as well. "I can't afford American Heritage," says her mother. Her husband, Walter, is nearing retirement after a 20-year career as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, and Cheryl works full-time as a telephone solicitor to help make ends meet. Now she faces the prospect of having her house face the rear of an 800-seat performing arts center. In the meantime continued opposition against such a powerful foe has taken a toll on Cheryl Szary. "I just want [Laurie] to buy our house, and we'll leave. He can have it. I've told him that," she says.

Bill Laurie says he has no interest in buying Cheryl Szary's house. It's on the wrong side of the street.

Szary lives on the south side of SW Second Street, a dead-end road just south of campus. Laurie says he'd eventually like to buy up the whole north side of the street, and if you look at a zoning map, it's not hard to see why. That line of plats marks the only blemish in what would otherwise be a perfectly square piece of property owned by the school and extending from the street to the C-1 canal.

He's already bought one of those houses, and the circumstances of the purchase says something about the way he operates. Last May, while the city council was pondering a school request for a permit to construct a performing arts center the back side of which would face SW Second Street, the council received a letter from one Larry Miller.

The letter praised Laurie for having been "very cooperative" in working out Miller's concerns about the construction of the performing arts center. "Mr. Bill Laurie and I have been working together to successfully buffer my property from the school," Miller wrote. "I believe that the approval of the conceptual master site plan would not be detrimental to the area."

The letter reflected a 180-degree change in attitude for Miller. A year earlier, at a March 5, 1997, city council meeting, Miller had opposed any further expansion of the school, complaining that foliage the school had planted as a buffer "does not reduce the noise."

What Miller's 1998 letter to the council failed to mention was that Miller and Laurie at the time were also working together to successfully sell Miller's house to the school. The sale of the house was closed on May 18, shortly after which Laurie moved in. So now Laurie lives across the street from Szary, who, when the center is built, will presumably be able to look out her front door and see its rear wall looming over the neighborhood.

Driving around the property in his golf cart, Bill Laurie is proudly pointing out how he turned an empty lot into a beautifully landscaped running track. From the north come the sounds of workmen milling about the $3 million field house, which will hold a state-of-the-art gymnasium and coaches' offices. They're just laying the interior tile. To the east is the now-empty lot where the performing arts center will stand.

The conversation turns to the future. Is there anything he can think of that this campus needs but doesn't have? Is there anything yet to build? Laurie sits silently for a while, then his answer comes: "No, I can't really think of a thing. With the performing arts center, we'll have about everything we need."

And with the science building, the clock tower, the performing arts center, the running track, the field house, and the myriad new classrooms, the campus has pretty much filled up anyway. If he wanted to build anything else, he'd have to find a new campus.

This summer Laurie and a partner formed a new corporation based in Miramar. He seems surprised when asked about it. "Oh that," he says. It turns out that he's been thinking about creating another elementary school to serve as a supplement or eventual replacement for the elementary school currently on the Plantation campus. "I think eventually we could have several campuses," he says. None of them, of course, would have palm trees.

Contact Paul Belden at his e-mail address: Paul_Belden@newtimesbpb.com

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