News Flash: Jim Notter Wasn't the Real Problem

Jim Notter couldn't even tell the truth as he was going out the door.

The Broward schools superintendent made a surprise announcement that he was retiring yesterday, leaving three years left on a contract that pays him $299,000 a year.

The resignation was a much-anticipated move after the scathing grand jury report blasted the corrupt School Board and pointed to Notter as one of the chief problems. But Notter claimed the report or the corruption at the district had nothing to do with his decision to retire at the end of the school year in June and "go on a cruise and enjoy life."

"I'm telling you, it doesn't have a bit to do with it," he said after the meeting. "The fact of the matter is that my decision was made prior to that. I'll be 65 in August..."

This is the same guy who, when public pressure was building for his resignation in the wake of the February 18 report, dug in his heels and announced, with all but one of the School Board members behind him, that he had "no plans to

retire or resign." 

Well, that's Notter -- he's always been sort of a used-car-salesman type. And it's great to see him go. But get this straight: Notter is not the root cause of the problems at the board; he was simply an enabler of them.

Ever since the now criminally charged Stephanie Kraft engineered the ouster of Frank Till in 2006 and the board installed Notter, it has been the board that has had all the real power. The figurative public beheading of Till sent a message to Notter and whoever else might have filled the seat: Do what we say or you will lose your big-shot position and big fat salary.  

And controlling the board members was the dark prince of real power, Neil Sterling, who filled their campaign coffers and had his partner, Barbara Miller, run many of their campaigns. In exchange for making their political careers, Sterling had those same board members award his clients -- including Pirtle Construction and Vista Health -- more than a billion dollars worth of contracts in the past five years (the health insurance contract alone came in at $1.7 billion).

Kraft -- and incredibly manipulative, vindictive, and at times maniacal politician -- was Sterling's ringleader on the board. In exchange for her dirty deeds, Sterling secretly put her husband, Mitch Kraft, on his payroll for years. The other dark bookend of Sterling's power came from the hooligan Bob Parks, another malignant board member.  

The superintendent was a bureaucrat, not an autocrat. There's no hint that Notter took any dirty money for enabling Sterling and the dirty board. Why would he? He's making an obscene salary from taxpayers. All he had to do was make the vile Kraft and Parks happy -- while tossing whatever was left of his shriveled soul out the window.

The other board members ranged from abjectly and very amateurishly corrupt (Bev Gallagher) to clown-like (Ben Williams). Then you had the go-alongers like Jennifer Gottlieb and Robin Bartleman, both of whom were Sterling acolytes whose campaigns were funded by him and who counted his partner Miller as their campaign manager.

Gottlieb and Bartleman were all teary-eyed yesterday after the announcement, while the ridiculous Williams said with a straight face, "I think [Notter is] going out on a good note because he's been a good superintendent."

What Sterling, a former School Board member himself, achieved in making the School Board pawns to him and his clients is a monumental achievement in evil -- and it took a lot of hard work and money (which of course came from the contractors and subcontractors he represented and who became very rich). But all of that would have been nearly useless if the superintendent didn't go along with the scheme. He needed control of the superintendent's chair. 

In Notter, Sterling got that via the devious Kraft and Parks. Here's a big example of how Notter allowed the corruption to thrive:

During the building boom, Sterling wanted his clients like Pirtle Construction to keep getting hundreds of millions worth of school-building contracts. The problem was the district didn't need them. So how do you build schools when there is no need for them? Why, you willfully choose not to do state-mandated school population surveys so nobody can tell you to stop.

A good superintendent never would have allowed that to happen. Notter, year after year, chose not to do the surveys -- and the state took way too long before finally forcing the district to do one. By that time, it was already too late -- the board had already gone on a seemingly drunken building binge, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and leaving the district taxpayers $2 billion in debt.

It's a horrendous legacy. But right now, the School Board stands at a historic crossroads. The malicious architects of Sterling's empire are gone. Sterling himself has gone into remission, though he's still lurking. Kraft is facing criminal charges. Parks left office. And Gallagher is in prison. Left behind are newbies and relative lightweights.

The long chain of corruption is exposed and, at the moment, somewhat broken. The beauty of Notter's resignation is that there is now a possibility -- just a possibility -- of bringing in a strong leader from far outside the corrupt culture of the district. And this time, the people can at least hope that the new superintendent will finally represent the children and taxpayers rather than those who want to rob them.

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