Well, I get a lot of ribbing about never getting out to things, so I decided to make a personal appearance at the Broward County School Board's news conference at Stranahan High School marking the first day of school (today).
After walking a few miles around the school and then waiting for the kids to get the hell out of there, I finally made it to the auditorium. While I was getting in, I see School Board Chairwoman Maureen Dinnen getting hauled around on a golf cart. No fair.
Inside the auditorium, I saw Kathy Bushouse, the Sun-Sentinel's ace school-house reporter. Then I met the Miami Herald's Hannah Sampson, who has been covering the board since 2005. It was basically us three, a TV guy, and a community reporter.
Then there were the board attendees: Superintendent Jim Notter (right) and board members Dinnen, Phyliss Hope, Jennifer Gottlieb, and Ben Williams. Understand, I'd never met any of these people and had spoken only with Gottlieb on the phone before Sunday's post in which her loyalists complained that I hated her guts. There was also Michael Garretson, the construction chief who folks around here call Barney Rubble. He put an overhead post of Heron Heights Elementary on an easel, reminding me of this morning's post. Yeah, it was a little surreal.
Anyway, Notter finally got the podium, flanked by the board members and some national PTA honcho. If you've never met Notter, he really does come off as sort of a carnival barker or car salesman. He talks about "fabulous" this and "wonderful" that and often talks in the third person, which is a bit disconcerting at first (as in "Notter tightened the belt one more notch," and "Notter likes to
underpromise and overdeliver"). Anyway, he gave a little pep rally that had one interesting piece of information: The first day found 231,495 students enrolled. That sounds low, but Notter said he's confident the ranks will get filled up a little better.
Then each of the board members spoke. They were fine. But I was waiting to ask questions because this might be the only chance I would get. Here was my first question to Notter, paraphrased: You project that there will be about 35,000 empty seats in the School Board after this latest building boom. Why didn't you re-boundary districts instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars building unnecessary seats?
Notter answered basically that if he had a "crystal ball," he wouldn't have built so many seats but that all the projections showed population booming. The problem with that is that the School Board's own enrollment numbers showed the number of students starting to decrease in 2005.
I followed up with (again paraphrased): But you ignored state law and didn't do the plant surveys that would have shown you the new schools weren't needed.
"We did not ignore state law!" Notter just about yelled. "We did not ignore state law!"
But they did. They didn't do the state-mandated five-year plant survey in 2005, when school enrollment population topped and then began decreasing. Then they voted three years in a row to adopt the old plant survey. Just read this to see the facts. And it's contrary to state law any way you look at it.
At the same time, the construction department went on a three-year building frenzy based on old data that has left us broke and critically underenrolled.
"One more question, because I don't think you answered it: Why did you put off the plant survey mandated by the state for three years?"
After that question, Notter went into a song and dance. That's all I can call it. He said something about 19,000 charter school students that didn't make any sense and then, I think, he answered to a certain extent, saying that the board didn't do the required surveys because "we were still into a rapid and accelerated mode" of building and mentioned the class-size amendment (yeah, that old chestnut).
In other words, the board was too busy building schools and classrooms to actually stop and see if the hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of construction was actually needed. I have to admit, I sort of put up my arms when he was finished. I thought he'd have a better answer; this literally made no sense. But then again, even a hustler like Notter can't make the facts disappear. And it looks like the board knew damned good and well that the construction wasn't needed but raced to do it anyway.
Before it was over, Dinnen decided to give it to me. She looked at me, her voice tightened, and she said, like Notter before her, that she didn't know anyone who could have seen the future, who could have known that enrollment would go down in Broward County after so many years of going upward.
I couldn't hold my tongue.
"Maybe you should have looked at a census," I said. "Or the board's own enrollment numbers. They showed enrollment starting to go down in 2005, but you kept building."
That was it for Dinnen. After it was over, Gottlieb and I both sort of headed for each other. We'd talked just a few days ago, and several commenters, as I said, claimed that I had an unnatural hatred for her and her husband, Ken. After we said hello, I said, "I don't hate you."
She said, "I know you don't. I can't help my friends from doing what they do. It was a fair article."
"Well, you have a lot of friends."
"So do you," she said.
Then Dinnen, who overheard, said, "You're Bob Norman?"
"Yeah, I guess if you would have known that, you would have yelled a little louder at me," I said.
"I don't yell; I debate," she said.
There was now a blur of board members around me at that time. Phyllis Hope came over.
"I always wanted to see you in person," she said. "I always thought you would be older than you are."
"I get that a lot," I told her. "I don't know if it's a compliment or an insult."
"I just say that because you're so full of wisdom. You just seem to have a lot of knowledge with everything you say."
Hey, I can't make this stuff up. It's just the way it happened. Then I shook hands with Ben Williams, who seems like a very nice gentleman. It was sort of like a welcoming line there for a minute.
Then I made my way over to Notter. Damn if I was going to leave without personally introducing myself. He was sitting there talking to some community newspaper reporter who was asking all kinds of questions and writing down every darned thing the guy spouted out. This went on for several minutes, me kind of standing over him (he's not a tall man), Notter making sure not to look at me, and the girl furiously writing down what he was saying. It occurred to me he might be trying to outlast me. Finally I sort of butted in a little and told him my name. He said, "Oh, you're Bob Norman."
"Yeah, what did you expect, that I'd be hiding behind a bookshelf lobbing bombs at you?"
"I didn't say that," he said quickly. "I wouldn't say that. I strongly believe in the freedom of the press. Anytime you want to talk to, we'll sit down."
I told him I'd take him up on it and let him go. Then, lastly, as I was headed to the door, it was time to say hello to Michael Garretson, the construction chief who has been pretty beaten up on these pages. I introduced myself, and he said, almost in defeated fashion, "Yeah, I know who you are."
We walked out together.
"Why did you call me for a comment after you put up a story?" Garretson asked me. "That's not professional."
"That was a blog thing," I said. "Sometimes you have to move fast. But about three times before that, I called you before a story was running and gave you plenty of time, and you never called me back. That gets old."
"You wouldn't change anything if I did call you back," he said.
"Yes, I would; that's what I'm all about," I said. "I'm human; I make mistakes. If I do, I want you to tell me about them."
Then at one point, he said, "You've called me a monster."
I don't remember calling him a monster and haven't checked to see if that was true or not.
"You don't know me," he continued, "so somebody must be telling you that."
"It's based on your reign as construction chief," I said. "I honestly don't think things have gone well at all under your leadership."
He said, "Do you agree that speed is valuable?" he said. "We put those two schools in 12 months."
"They aren't valuable because they aren't needed," I said. "You're just adding more empty seats."
We stopped in an outside corridor, and I reiterated that I wanted his point of view and that I wanted to be as accurate as possible. At some point, he said, "You're not looking me in the eye. That means you're not being honest."
I was a little taken aback by this. I wasn't facing him at the time. I was sort of looking out onto the parking lot and he was beside me facing my profile. So it wasn't like I was shifting my eyes all over the place or anything. I turned and looked him in the eye. "You think I can't look you in the eye?" And from then in on it was pretty much laser-style.
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"How about we make a deal," I said. "The next time I mention your name in any story, I'll call you. You answer my questions. Let's see how it goes. It'll be an experiment."
He said he would.
So we'll see how it goes.