River of Greed, Part 2
It was showdown time in Weston.
State and federal officials from the water management district, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Interior Department faced off last week with Mayor Eric Hersh and education officials about an ill-conceived school site on the edge of the Everglades.
Beforehand, Hersh had been adamantly in favor of the 45-acre site, most of it owned by wealthy developer and major School Board campaign contributor Ronnie Bergeron, for a high school now dubbed only "MMM."
The fact that a school there would encroach on the massive $10.5 billion Everglades restoration project and set up a fight between the School Board and the state and federal officials didn't deter Hersh from supporting the plan. Nor did the fact that the land was expected to cost as much as $40 million.
He went into the meeting last Monday at Weston City Hall ready to duel. But by the time it was over, he flinched.
The contending officials, headed by the South Florida Water Management District's deputy director, Ken Ammon, told the mayor: We're not moving a planned reservoir bordering the site one inch.
That kills a key access road to the site. The only option left is to cut through environmentally sensitive lands to build another road through wetlands that will not only cost at least $8 million but will be of minimal use and could take years for approval.
Hersh finally saw the light. The Bergeron site wouldn't work. He's now ready to kill it execution-style and dump it in the swamp. "It looks very bleak," he told me.
Bleak for the mayor, maybe, but good for taxpayers. With Hersh now against the plan, its chances of happening are slim. And that means the public could save tens of millions of ill-spent dollars, a nearby neighborhood will be spared having a huge high school built in its backyard, a threatened Buddhist retreat can rest easy, and a sensible plan can be worked out to relieve the overcrowding at Cypress Bay High School in Weston.
But not so fast.
When it comes to the Broward School Board, bad ideas don't die; they just fade away. Or they're implemented by a knee-jerk bureaucracy. And the rodeo-loving Bergeron, who has rassled up tens of thousands of dollars for School Board campaigns, still has a lot of pull.
The School Board has scheduled workshops and meetings for this week to talk about MMM. Chaos will surely reign. When it comes to the bumbling School Board, a place where incompetence and corruption meet, anything could happen.
One veteran board member in particular, Stephanie Kraft, is trying to keep the Bergeron site on the burner. The funny thing is that she doesn't even represent Weston. Phyllis Hope, who does represent Weston, is dead-set against using the Bergeron land.
In an opening volley last week, Kraft, who hails from Tamarac, unleashed an e-mail, copied to me and several school officials, in which she insisted that the Bergeron site "can work" and denounced an article that I'd written two weeks ago about MMM (see "River of Greed," April 19). Shortly after that piece was published, a scheduled vote on the property was postponed. Then came the showdown in Weston.
So why is Kraft so passionately in favor of what might soon be known as the Bergeron Boondoggle? For one, she has a long-lasting bond with Bergeron and his lobbyist/girlfriend, Ali Waldman. It was Waldman who ushered Kraft into politics in 1998, serving as her campaign treasurer and introducing her to a slew of powerbrokers. Kraft even became a member of Waldman's political club of women, known as the Steel Magnolias.
Bergeron and Waldman have contributed thousands to Kraft's subsequent campaigns, and Kraft says they raised about $3,000 more for her in 2006.
Money and campaign support might not buy Kraft's love, but in Bergeron's case, it seems to have bought loyalty. (Bergeron has not responded to messages from New Times. ) This isn't the first time she's ferociously guarded the multimillionaire's interests at the expense of taxpayers. Back in 2000, she threw a veritable fit when an audit claimed that the board had overpaid $1.6 million for a parcel of Bergeron-owned land. She called the finding wrong, saying it bordered on the "fraudulent."
The score in that spat: multimillionaire 1, taxpayers 0.
When I questioned Kraft about her ties to Waldman and Bergeron, she downplayed them. She admitted that she has spoken with Waldman about the school site but says she's not as close with the lobbyist/girlfriend these days as a lot of people think. "We aren't as friendly as we were," Kraft says. "We were very friendly in 1998 with the whole Steel Magnolias thing."
Kraft persists, though, despite all the obvious financial and environmental problems. And don't underestimate her. Remember the unpopular firing of former Superintendent Frank Till? Kraft spearheaded it.
Kraft claims she isn't "married" to the site, though, which is a good thing, because Hersh is suddenly bringing some sensible new ideas to the table.
One is to turn Falcon Cove Middle School, next door to Cypress Bay, into a high school and build a new middle school on district-owned land in nearby Davie. Another is for Weston to donate five acres of land adjacent to Cypress Bay High to the School Board to use for a parking garage. That would free up eight or nine acres that could be the grounds for a new "vertical high school" of four to five stories that would share resources with Cypress Bay.
Let's recap. The vertical-high-school plan entails no land costs, no sprawl, and the construction of an efficient campus of classrooms. Who could argue?
Kraft, of course. She says that if the Bergeron site isn't used, she wants Weston to "step up to the plate" by offering Tequesta Trace Park, where children play little league, as the site for the high school.
Plunder the parks. Brilliant. Sounds like a ploy to bring popular sentiment back to the Bergeron site. I asked Kraft why she's already set against the vertical high school idea.
"I want a whole big area to build a big high school," she said. "Nice and spread out. But I want to hear from residents."
When I pointed out that the vertical plan would save up to $50 million on land and road costs alone, Kraft responded, "We have the money in our budget."
Actually, there's only $25 million budgeted for land. I said that hers was exactly the mindset that has led to hundreds of millions of dollars being wasted by the School Board over the past few decades. Unethical lobbyists and building officials have run rampant, grand juries have convened, investigations have revealed corruption at every turn. Yet nothing has changed.
Kraft, who has actually done some good things in her nine years in office, let out a rueful laugh. "Welcome to Broward County," she said.
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