Animal Farm

At the Broward County School Board, the chickens cry foul

It's not easy being David Rhodes. He hears that people have called him "Public Enemy No. 1." People hush up when he walks into work meetings. He's a pariah in his own workplace.

Rhodes is an auditor for the Broward County School Board.

"They beat me up on a daily basis," Rhodes says of School Board officials who don't like that he's investigating rampant mismanagement in the agency. "But I don't respond to their beatings the way they want me to. I just keep doing my job."

MIKE GORMAN

It's no mystery why School Board officials are wary of Rhodes. It seems that every time he turns over a rock in the district's $3.4 billion construction department, he finds something gross — usually waste and mismanagement.

And sometimes, it gets personal. Take the day that the influential lobbyist Neil Sterling came to pay him a visit to pick up a couple of audit reports that were critical of one of his marquee clients, architect Bernard Zyscovich.

Rhodes found that the Miami-based Zyscovich had wasted millions of taxpayers' dollars while trying to skirt fire safety standards and delaying a project to build a 24-classroom addition to Miramar High School.

The board's chief auditor, Patrick Reilly, actually went rather easy on Zyscovich. He didn't ask for any of the $6 million in additional construction costs caused by the delay or even the full $370,000 that was paid to Zyscovich in useless planning fees.

Because school officials bore some of the blame for going along with the Zyscovich plan, Reilly split the loss between the architect and the School Board, penalizing the company a mere $186,900.

But Sterling, a former School Board member who parlayed his public service into a lucrative lobbying career, took it as an affront, Rhodes says.

"He came in looking all ashy and angry," Rhodes recalls. "I just told him, 'Look, I can't help it if your client made a bad decision.' And he left very pissed."

Neither Sterling nor Zyscovich returned calls seeking comment.

Welcome to the School Board, where lobbyists browbeat auditors. In reality, Sterling never really had anything to worry about. He draws more water at the School Board than any auditor. In fact, Sterling and his partner, lobbyist Barbara Miller, enjoy a hammerlock on the board. They've raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for School Board members, and Miller even pitches in to run campaigns. The pair enjoy great influence with a majority of the nine-member board: Bev Gallagher, Robin Bartleman, Jennifer Gottlieb, Bob Parks, and Stephanie Kraft.

Most recently, they bonded with Gallagher by hosting her kickoff fundraiser at Sterling's Fort Lauderdale home. About $40,000 was netted at the September 27 event.

And the commissioners have returned that generosity by steering hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of school projects toward their top clients, Zyscovich and builder James Pirtle. Not a bad return at all.

Zyscovich and Pirtle are, in fact, treated like royalty by the School Board and its staff. So when Rhodes does his job and finds serious problems with their contracts, it shakes up the place pretty good.

Rhodes likens the School Board to a farm. Zyscovich, Pirtle, top school officials, and elected board members are the farmers. Everybody else, including Rhodes himself, are chickens in the yard. And if the chickens upset the farmers, they either lose their place in the pecking order or have their metaphorical necks wrung.

Take the three female inspectors who dared to find safety violations and other problems at schools that Pirtle built. Known as the "three amigas" in School Board circles, they were disciplined, threatened with firing, and shipped to more menial jobs. None is inspecting buildings anymore.

The audit department, under the leadership of Reilly, has a reputation for being independent. The powers-that-be may not like what they do, but the auditors enjoy some protection from overt political revenge. But that hasn't kept Michael Garretson, deputy construction superintendent, from criticizing the auditors and belittling their work.

Tension between construction management and Rhodes and Reilly has gotten so bad that the board is calling for an independent audit to help sort out the conflict.

In the meantime, Garretson and the School Board simply ignore audit findings, allowing Sterling's clients to skate. Take that $186,900 Zyscovich was supposed to give back to the taxpayers for the botched Miramar project.

To understand that mess, you need to go back to 2001, when Zyscovich was chosen to build a $6 million classroom addition to Miramar High. His unusual plan was to build the addition onto the front of the school, along with a new façade. It always seemed far-flung. Early on, the board's Consultants Review Committee began publicly questioning whether Zyscovich misled the board and could actually deliver it.

But Zyscovich pushed forward, even though regulations demanded that he build a firewall that would make the project unworkable. The architect insisted that, rather than a firewall, a sprinkler system would suffice. One School Board building official balked, but then-Chief Inspector Lee Martin stepped in and backed Zyscovich's idea.

It dragged on for more than two years before the state's top school building official, the Department of Education's Jon Hamrick, stated the obvious: The law required that a firewall be built.

That finally killed the idea. When Rhodes began his investigation, he said he soon realized that the project had "gone haywire." Sterling met with Rhodes and Reilly to try to quash the investigation, but they pushed forward.

Just before the scathing report was issued in February 2005, Martin resigned. But things were just starting to get complicated. A few months later, Rhodes followed up his investigation to determine whether Zyscovich actually paid the $186,900 to the School Board.

What he found was that the construction department, rather than make him pay, arbitrarily reduced the fine to $150,000 and tucked it into another school project as "good-will credit."

On top of that, there were hundreds of thousands of fees in the contract for designing things that weren't even going to be built, including an auditorium.

The showdown came April 7 at a School Board meeting. On one side were Reilly and Rhodes and a few community activists who had been watching the saga unfold.

On the other... just about everybody else at the School Board, including the superintendent, Jim Notter, and the board attorney, Ed Marko. In what can be described only as voodoo economics, they tried to explain away the fact that Zyscovich wasn't reimbursing a dime to the board.

Activist Ruth Lynch, of the Broward Coalition, wasn't buying it. "This isn't as complicated as it appears," she told the board. "It's basic good business practice to follow the direction of the district auditors... Your attorney [Marko] has already stated that he doesn't check numbers; he checks for legal form. Your auditors, however, do get paid for checking the numbers, and they're telling you the numbers on the $1.8 million contract were inflated. You can... get the 150,000 tax dollars back, or you can decide to let it go. If it were your personal money, would you let it go?"

The board, led by the pro-Zysco­vich Gallagher, let it go. It voted 6-1 to approve the contract. Board member Phyllis Hope, who isn't in the Sterling camp, cast the lone nay (two other board members were absent).

It was all in a day's work for Rhodes.

"Not only was Zyscovich given a pass on what he owed; he's been overly compensated by getting all the big work that the School Board is giving out," he says. "The high-powered lobbyists are running the show. But hey, what does that matter? It's just us chickens."

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