When the new capital budget for the Broward County School Board was released last week, there was something missing: the money.

The budget, which stood at $3.5 billion a couple of years ago, was slashed to $1.2 billion. And the bulk of that money — $763 million — is going to pay the $2 billion debt left over from the recent school building boom.

It has become clear now that the madhouse construction of classroom additions and new schools in Broward County is coming to a crash that will rival that of crooked Wall Street banks. The School Board's irresponsible and possibly criminal actions have wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars and left the district awash in debt

A trail of records shows that it was all a high-stakes game, an orchestrated raid of the public trough. That wasted money was transferred to a favored pool of school district contractors and their lobbyists and cronies. Chiefly to blame are high-ranking officials who knowingly overbuilt schools and elected School Board members who not only failed to responsibly oversee the district but also were complicit in what can only be described as a financial disaster.

School district records show that from 2002 to 2007, the board's budget for school additions and renovations more than doubled, from about $487 million to $1.05 billion. Hundreds of millions of contracts flowed, without public bids, to politically connected local builders like Pirtle Construction and Moss & Associates.

That rush to build has left the county with more than 25,000 empty classroom seats, a number that is projected by the board to rise to 34,800 by 2013. That comes to about 1,400 classrooms. Multiply that by the average cost of a classroom in the district, $250,000, and you get the total dollar amount that the board overspent during the past several years.

It comes to a staggering $350 million wasted on unnecessary classrooms additions and schools.

That's only an estimate based on the known numbers, mind you. The total amount of wasteful construction is likely much higher, as there have been a multitude of smaller projects along the way, many of them unnecessary, done at bloated costs, favoring contractors rather than us clueless taxpayers.

To understand why district officials and School Board members would come to serve contractors over the interests of taxpayers and children, understand that builders largely fund School Board members' campaigns. Pirtle, for instance, hired lobbyists Neil Sterling and Barbara Miller, who not only raised huge amounts of money for the board members but actually ran several of their campaigns.

On top of that, School Board members love to brag about new schools in their districts. They just failed to mention these past few years that the projects weren't necessary.

They fed the machine — and played the public for suckers. The district overlords didn't just spend money they had on hand but they also borrowed huge amounts of money.

Financial records indicate that the School Board's $2 billion in debt was raised through certificates of participation, which are similar to bonds but can be issued without voters' consent.

The new District Education Facilities Plan, issued July 14, clearly spells out the damage done. Over the next five years, the School Board will spend $763 million in debt service alone. That comes to 60 percent of the capital budget through 2013-14.

It's a dire situation, and it never should have been allowed to happen. State-mandated checks are in place to prevent calamities like this, but they were simply thwarted and ignored by the district officials and board members.

School construction, for instance, is supposed to be based on in-depth population and student-count studies known as "plant surveys." Those surveys are required by state statute to be updated every five years.

The Broward school building frenzy was based on a survey completed in 2001, when classrooms were overcrowded and great population growth was forecast. But when that survey expired in 2006, the trend had already changed, seats were empty, and the county's population was beginning to decrease.

A new School Board survey would have shown this and prevented the building of hundreds of millions of dollars of unnecessary construction projects. Instead, the School Board in 2006 violated the law and simply re-adopted the old survey. It did the same in 2007 and again in 2008.

For three years, the board kept the gravy train rolling, building and borrowing based on an outdated and useless survey. And the state sat by and allowed it to happen even as top School Board officials clearly knew the new construction wasn't warranted or justified.

Again, proof of purposeful deception can be found in public records. During a project management meeting on September 25, 2007, at the height of the building frenzy, Michael Garretson, deputy superintendent over construction and facilities management, explicitly ordered project managers to rush through building plans before a new survey was done.  

Garretson, according to meeting minutes, told staff that new schools and classroom additions "need to be bid because of the new state survey which is due the last of October, which will most likely remove all of our capacity additions," according to meeting minutes.

It's clear that Garretson told his troops to push through the construction projects before the truth came out that they weren't needed. Garretson didn't respond to calls for comment.

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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