Sunday Post: The Lincoln Park Story (Or: How The School Board Blew $25 million)

Sunday Post: The Lincoln Park Story (Or: How The School Board Blew $25 million)

The Broward County School Board has driven the district into near-bankruptcy by overbuilding by tens of thousands of seats that now sit empty. Part of the reason is that every board member has had a pet project that's added to the hundreds of millions of dollars misspent. 

Board Member Jennifer Gottlieb's monument to waste and excess, for instance, is something called "Elementary School C."

The school is being currently being built in central Hollywood at a total cost to taxpayers of more than $25 million -- at a time of teachers' layoffs and a debt-ridden finance ledger. It will add 834 classroom seats to a school district that already has more than 25,000 empty seats and is expected to have 34,800 by 2012.

To obtain the land to build this unneeded school, the board purchased 54 neighborhood homes for about $6.3 million, uprooting dozens of families, and forcing nine households out of the neighborhood through the expensive use of eminent domain.

It has also decimated Lincoln Park, a 64-year old community gathering place that has been shut down for almost two years and will be permanently diminished by the school board's move into the area.

All of this was done in the name of relieving overcrowding at nearby Hollywood Central Elementary. But that school is currently under-enrolled by at least 40 students and hasn't been overcrowded since 2004.

On top of that, across the street from Gottlieb's 834-seat shrine is the Sunrise Elementary Charter School and the Paragon Academy of Technology for middle school students. Both are slightly under-enrolled right now, but have been approved to expand by hundreds of students should the need arise. The rise in the number of charter schools, of course, has added substantially to the number of empty classroom seats in the county.  

I asked the school's principal, Steven Montes, what he thought about his new next door neighbor. "I think it will be a beautiful addition to the neighborhood," he said.

Is it needed?

"No comment," he said.

Of course it's not.

Sure, back in 2003, it seemed to be. Hollywood Central Elementary was, in fact, overcrowded. In 2004, the board approved hiring BRPH Architects Engineers, Inc. as the project's design consultant at a total cost of $491,478 to be paid as it developed.

The board also purchased and razed homes in the area at that time, displacing dozens of families at a cost to taxpayers of at least $6.3 million. Neighborhood residents, meanwhile, were up in arms about the plan to build part of the

school in the five-acre Lincoln Park, where adults and children alike frequently used the playground, softball field, basketball courts, walking paths, and shuffleboard and bocce courts.

As the board was acquiring the land, the need for the school was disappearing. In 2005, seats were added to Hollywood Central and enrollment dropped. That year, the school was only over-enrolled by 33 students - hardly a reason to build an entire school to relieve it.

At the beginning of the 2006 school year, when Gottlieb was elected, Hollywood Central was under-enrolled by two students. It would probably have been a good time for the district to cut its losses and find a way to sell the land. Back then, it probably would have fetched a decent price, too. 

But Gottlieb, an at-large board member, wanted the school built. Cynics say it was so she could boast of an expensive project in the district where she lives (even if it was a waste of time and money). They might also point to the fact that her 2006 campaign was funded with tens of thousands of dollars from the local construction industry, perhaps providing more incentive. But she insists it was for the good of the board and the community.

"That community hasn't gotten a new school in 43 years," she told me. "It was the right thing and the fair thing to do for the community."

It's the old fair-share theory; every board member has some glaringly wasteful project out there somewhere. This one was for Gottlieb in her backyard. It goes to show that even at-large members like Gottlieb, who are supposed to look out for the district as a whole, get involved in pork-barrel projects involving their political bases.

And, ironically, it comes at the immediate expense of the neighborhood, which had worked hard to transform Lincoln Park into a family-friendly place after years of neglect. The park was closed by the school board in October 2007 and has been sitting empty since (see the photo above).

Recently, residents learned that the park's reopening has been delayed for nearly another year and, when it does return, it will be smaller and used mostly in service of a school that wasn't needed. The park woes have the North Central Hollywood Civic Association so concerned that it has retained a lawyer, Kara Cannizzaro, to represent its interests in the matter.

The group has also gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition aimed at getting the park fully restored.

"This is a park that has been in this community for more than 60 years," says NCHC President Pete Brewer, who has fought hard for the park. "And they've taken it for a school that shouldn't be built in the first place." 

In December 2007, the school board approved a $16,176,500 contract with the Pompano Beach-based construction firm Padula & Wadsworth to build the new school -- known as "Elementary School C." The firm won the job because it put in the lowest bid, but in true Broward school board style, the construction of the unnecessary school has turned into a mismanaged and costly comedy of errors.

The building of the school kept getting delayed - and the costs to taxpayers kept getting jacked up by both BRPH and Padula, which incidentally contributed the maximum $500 to Gottlieb's campaign in 2006.

BRPH renegotiated its design contract with school board staff no less than five times, most often alleging extra costs due to delays. After amendments to the contract, the company has increased its fee by a whopping $250,000 - more than 50 percent of the original contract.

But that's nothing compared to the construction change orders the board authorized to Padula. That low bid didn't seem to mean much once the company won the job. So far, Padula has asked for and received extra fees that total more than $2 million. A large chunk of that came when Padula claimed that, due to "unforeseen construction costs," it would need $759,727.

School board auditors saw this cost, found it couldn't be justified, and recommended that schools construction chief Michael Garretson not authorize it. After all, the design still hadn't even been finalized and construction costs are lower now than they were in 2007. But Garretson, a bureaucrat who has a longstanding habit of favoring builders over taxpayers, simply forwarded the added cost to the School Board's agenda, and it was rubber-stamped on February 3.

Even as a small fortune was being tacked onto the cost of the school, its very existence still couldn't be justified. After years of furiously building and borrowing, the school board has spent itself into very dire financial straits. While building all those empty seats, it fell $2 billion in debt. Today, 60 percent of the drastically reduced capital budget is going to service the debt alone.

As the bleak situation came to light, several school building plans that weren't needed have been scrapped (don't ask why they were made in the first place). Elementary School C would have surely been one of the chucked projects were it not for Gottlieb's efforts. It was impossible to justify as an elementary school, so the plan was changed: It would instead be a prestigious Montessori school open to all K-8 students in Broward, regardless of geography.

It's still not needed in the area: The nearby middle schools all have empty seats, as well. But Gottlieb says there has been a "community outpouring of support" for the project and that she is confident it will prompt parents of children now going to private schools to enroll at the new Montessori.

"I persuaded my colleagues [on the Board], and my colleagues support this," says Gottlieb. "The goal of the Elementary C changed to be an open-boundary programmatic theme school. It's not to relieve overcrowding, but it's going to be a curriculum-based school the community wanted. I'm confident everyone will love it and enjoy it. The community can enjoy it."

A back-slapping groundbreaking ceremony at the Lincoln Park site was held on March 5 and construction has begun. Gottlieb, Garretson, Hollywood Mayor Peter Bober, and others met to praise one another for bringing the school to the city.

I have little doubt Gottlieb is right that the people of Hollywood generally will like it (except those who have seen their park diminished). The problem is that it's $25 million wasted on a trophy school at a time that hundreds of teachers are being laid off, schools are strapped for basic supplies, and some leaky roofs aren't being fixed due to a terrible budget.

And the design of the school, in mid-building, will have to be changed yet again. It's made for elementary students, not eighth graders. There will be more design changes and studies. It's not clear how much the adjustments will cost, but judging by the contractor's past record, it won't be cheap.

Put simply, the project exemplifies terrible planning - on several different levels - and short-sighted leadership. This isn't about what's best for the school board, it's about political favor.
And unfortunately, it's just a fraction of hundreds of millions of dollars this school board has burned on its way to financial ruin.

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