Project managers in the School Board's construction department were aware of the scheme. One even complained about it to numerous school officials, including Superintendent James F. Notter and all the board members. In a May 5 email, project manager Michael Marchetti wrote that he and others on several occasions "were clearly advised to move [classroom additions] along because a new plant survey was looming and the state was going to deny additions because we were already way over capacity."

Marchetti added: "So it would appear that while we were admittedly losing students in those years the board and management continued to knowingly and willingly utilize outdated statistics in order to justify unneeded new construction."

When questioned about the email, Marchetti refused to discuss the details. He did say that he expected to hear from board members and district managers about the problem but got no response.

Garretson kept rushing out the construction projects until 2008, when the state Department of Education finally stepped in and forced the board to conduct a new survey. In November 2008, Notter explained the situation in a report to the School Board. He acknowledged that eight years had gone by without a new survey.

When the state produced its own surveys showing that school construction in Broward wasn't needed, district officials disagreed. "There was controversy between Broward County's student numbers and the state's numbers," Notter wrote in the memo.

When the state finally forced the board to conduct the study, a makeshift "preliminary survey" quickly determined that there were tens of thousands of empty seats, wrote Notter. Yet even then, Notter and the board seemed upset at the state's order. "School board members want to make it clear that it is the state that is mandating the plant survey... and not the school district," he wrote.

Sounds almost like they were trying to tell the contractors, angry that the well was going dry, that it wasn't their fault. Notter didn't respond to calls for comment.

By that time, though, the damage was already done, the money already spent, the projects already irrevocably under way.

One thing we can be sure of is that all the unnecessary projects are finally coming to an end. There's simply no money left for much of anything. A school unexpectedly needs a new roof? Good luck. All the money has gone to underutilized classroom additions and unneeded new schools, some of which are still under construction.

Next year, less than $2 million — next to nothing — is available for all capital improvements. For the following five years, there's no money in the School Board's budget for any new construction or renovations. Zero.

Soon there won't even be money to pay the department's employees. The new budget shows that the construction department's $27 million payroll will be reduced to about $14.5 million in two years. About half the construction and facilities department staff are projected to lose their jobs.

Blame is easy to spread around. Top School Board officials — including Notter and Garretson — were obviously complicit to the point that they may as well have been working for the contractors. Elected School Board members shepherded along the projects as payback for political donations. The state failed miserably, allowing the board to break the law for too long.

But it's Broward taxpayers who are on the hook, and they'll be paying for phantom classrooms for years to come.


Correction

Bob Norman's column "Double? Try Triple Dipping" in the July 16 issue incorrectly reported that Broward Sheriff's Office Maj. James Clonch and Capt. Walter Laun are invested in the state's Deferred Retirement Option Program.

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