By Francisco Alvarado
By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
Same day. Same greed. Same cockeyed judgment.
The only difference between two votes cast Wednesday, February 26, was the victim: City of Hollywood commissioners screwed taxpayers, while the Broward County School Board shortchanged the city's kids.
In the afternoon, commissioners agreed to offer developer Steve Berman $3 million in incentives to build a sprawling, 300-condominium complex across from Young Circle, the city's central park. A few hours later, the Broward School Board rejected angry parents' pleas and did virtually nothing to help Hollywood Central, one of four critically overcrowded elementary schools in the county.
Yup. Leaders of Broward's second-largest city gave away a bundle of public cash so the school could be even more crammed with kids. It's so bad now that students are forced to squeeze 12 at a time into a 10-by-15-foot room and, in some cases, to share a toilet with 69 other kids. With more than 1,750 new and planned condos/apartments in the city center, which feeds the school, things are likely to get much, much worse.
The unhappy coincidence of City Commission and School Board votes should send a message: There's a nasty downside to the development fever that afflicts the region's urban areas, particularly Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, and West Palm Beach. We and our kids are just starting to pay the price.
"That Hollywood continues to approve these projects for the future is flat-out stupidity," says Corey Yugler, whose daughter, Hallie, is in kindergarten at the school. "That the board didn't deal with what is happening today at Hollywood Central is negligence."
Last Wednesday's drama started to unfold a decade or so ago, when parents and kids began to repopulate South Florida's coastal areas, which were then dominated by elderly residents. The trend has been well-documented: Family moves to suburbs. Family gets sick of suburbs. Family moves east, closer to beaches, movie theaters, restaurants, and more densely populated areas. It's part of the reason that housing prices in coastal areas have skyrocketed of late.
Hollywood Central, my neighborhood school, hasn't kept up. Though it was built in 1995 to make room for 776 kids, 1,225 pupils are there now. The music room, computer lab, science room, and teacher's lounge are now classrooms. A temporary overflow building called a "portable" fills a portion of the tiny playground, and there are no playing fields.
Like the school's problems, its demographics mirror all of South Florida. Some students are well-to-do, but more than half come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free lunches. About a quarter speak a language other than English at home -- mostly Spanish, Romanian, and Russian.
Meanwhile, Hollywood commissioners -- following the lead of Fort Lauderdale, where the skyline is presently being transformed by more than 2,100 new condos and apartments -- have gone gaga for development. They've approved dozens of small buildings and tentatively backed four monstrosities in the area that supplies students to Hollywood Central, which the commissioners have constantly, and hypocritically, termed a priority.
In 2000, the city agreed to put up $3.6 million to help a Texas firm, JPI, build 253 new apartments downtown. Jefferson at Young Circle, as the development is called, recently opened. Last June, commissioners "voiced strong support," according to the Sun-Sentinel, for plans for more than 700 condos and a new theater on the Circle. Taxpayers will likely have to pony up for some part of this. Then, in November, they backed a blueprint for 225 more units and stores in the shell of the ancient Great Southern Hotel; there will, of course, be a public cost for this plan too.
Then came Wednesday's vote. Three million more taxpayer-supplied smackers to Berman for La Piazza II, which would cost $70 million and break ground in 2004. The complex would include stores, a huge parking garage, and the condos. It would also be less than a half mile from the school. Like the other developers, Berman hopes to take advantage of another taxpayer rip-off -- an $11 million plan to turn Young Circle into an arts park.
Think of the views, baby, the views.
Commissioner Beam Furr, a Flanagan High School teacher who is probably more sympathetic to education than his colleagues on the dais are, says developing the city's downtown will turn around a blighted area. The condos will eventually provide big tax revenues and enliven the troubled shops and restaurants of Hollywood Boulevard and Harrison Street. And, he contends, more singles than families will live in the condos.
Furr acknowledges that the city's building plans might worsen the problems at Hollywood Central but notes that an advisory committee has already met with Broward schools Superintendent Frank Till and others to find a solution. He suggests, perhaps, caching some kids at two nearby schools: Attucks Middle School and Colbert Elementary.
"Are we compounding the problem [at Hollywood Central]? We could be," concedes Furr, who voted in favor of La Piazza II. "But I don't think you can expect development to come to a complete standstill."
Financing schools, he says, is the School Board's job. Moreover, he blames the "board's unwillingness to make significant changes" for the problems at Hollywood Central. "The city shouldn't necessarily be [paying for a school]," he concludes.