The Little Moldy Schoolhouse

Rebecca Blackwood looks small and grandmotherly seated before a shrimp salad at Shirttail Charlie's Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale. A petite 63-year-old with a round, dimpled face, she seems almost dwarfed by the high-rimmed salad in a shell. The impression is quite a contrast from the image she projected earlier that day while on the witness stand in Broward County Circuit Court. Testifying against the Broward School District about the shoddy workmanship in dozens of schools, the building-code expert answered questions with a cool, emotionless precision that would unnerve many interlocutors.

She and two other inspectors -- Maria L. Rouco and Sandra Kanner -- filed suit against the district three years ago, complaining that inspectors were being harassed by school building officials for aggressively flagging code violations in new construction. Testimony at the trial -- which is expected to conclude this week and has drawn nary a story from the Sun-Sentinel or Miami Herald -- underscores the many failures of the school district's beleaguered $1 billion building program. Blackwood describes a program in such disarray, under so much pressure to open new schools, that officials approve new buildings with outstanding code violations that endanger faculty and students.

Blackwood is the district's senior supervisor of building inspectors, but because of her outspokenness, she has been virtually stripped of power by school bureaucrats. "I'm not allowed to assign any inspectors, which is in my job description," she laments over dinner. "There are people driving this construction machine who are educators who know very little about code." The suit alleges that she was passed over for promotion several times because she ruffled too many feathers.

Blackwood's claims of slapdash workmanship come as no surprise. A 1997 grand jury found that schools built between 1987 and 1996 had leaky roofs and windows and stucco that fell from walls like autumn leaves. The leaks have led to mold and mildew, endangering the health of faculty and students. Kids were packed into schools even though construction hadn't been completed.

A 2002 interim grand jury report suggested a deteriorating situation. "The schools built from 1987 to 1996, and several others built before 1999, are largely failures," it concluded. "Their repairs have cost millions of dollars, sometimes representing [30 percent] of the original cost of the building. This money would not be needed for repairs had proper construction and design principles been employed when they were built." A consultant hired by the School Board estimated that it would cost $70 million to repair leaks and mold problems at just 79 of the 150 schools affected.

Blackwood describes as typical the construction problems at Park Lakes Elementary near Highway 441 and Oakland Park Boulevard in Lauderhill. In the fall of 2001, builders had placed the second-floor "slab," meaning the steel rebar that's laid to support the floor. Rouco inspected a quarter section of the steel and found that the rebar had not been fastened to the steel columns correctly, Blackwood says. Thus, it needed to be fixed and reinspected before it could be covered with concrete. But the district's project manager for the building told the contractor to ignore Rouco and go ahead and pour the concrete. As a result, with no way to inspect the rebar, Rouco issued a "red tag," which meant that no further work was to be done until it could be reinspected. But the project manager assigned another inspector to get approval.

Rouco also required the contractor to repair a vapor barrier -- intended to prevent moisture from building, which promotes mold -- after workers had poked holes through it to drain storm water, Blackwood says. Again, the concrete was poured, and again Rouco issued a red tag. The defect was never fixed. "Eventually you'll have mold and mildew," she says.

"They were issued so many red tags that year," Blackwood says of general contractor Danville Findorff, which went out of business this fall, "that the contractor put a little Christmas tree in his trailer and decorated it with red tags."

So have school officials been chastened in the past two years? Not if you consider the dissembling in the courtroom last week. Lee Martin, chief building official for the district, admitted that he issued more than 16 temporary certificates of occupancy for the opening of the school year this fall but asserted that those buildings had no outstanding life-threatening violations -- things such as fire alarms, sprinklers, and emergency lights. Blackwood's attorney, Karen Amlong, however, called an inspector to the stand who offered detailed documents proving that outstanding safety violations did indeed exist.

When Amlong later questioned school district Superintendent Frank Till about the safety violations, he said he was either unaware of them or was assured by Martin and others that everything was fine. "If all of these buildings are in full compliance with code," Amlong queried futilely, "why don't they just have certificates of occupancy instead of temporary certificates of occupancy?" Till escaped answering that one when the judge sustained an objection by the district's lawyer.

But the implication is clear, Blackwood says. "If you have outstanding life safety violations, in my opinion, that building can't be safe."

Martin and Till apparently hammered the final nail into the inspection department's coffin early this year when they implemented a plan to rotate inspectors' schedules so they don't watch one project from beginning to end.

"They move everybody around so no one knows what's going on now," Kanner testified last week. With palpable indignation, the thin-lipped inspector continued: "There's no accountability. You have these outstanding failed inspections that are forgotten."

"It was to create chaos, as far as I could see," Blackwood says. "It was to keep Rouco and Kanner from staying on a job too long. It's the contractors' responsibility to schedule reinspection for that failed inspection. But they're not doing that now." She adds that contractors now act with impunity because it's common knowledge that inspectors' findings are being disregarded.

Blackwood started out with a degree of authority when she assumed the supervisory role in July 1997. Castigated by the 1997 grand jury report, the School Board implemented one of the report's recommendations to give the inspection department autonomy from the school district's construction and facilities departments. Blackwood created a mandatory inspection list so that contractors working with the district knew their responsibilities. She also implemented the use of red tags.

"The contractors were complaining about things they didn't want to do," she recalls. "They didn't want to follow code. They wanted inspectors with very limited knowledge." Back in 1999, Blackwood and her inspectors worked up a complete report for Till, which included incidents of harassment. "We wanted a School Board policy or a directive to the departments that the failed inspections we cited would be enforceable and that we'd be able to make the contractor perform," Blackwood says. Till testified last week, "I didn't think it was needed."

Whatever progress Blackwood had made came to a "screeching halt," she says, after Till brought in two new men to head the departments of compliance and facilities/construction. They've been more sympathetic toward contractors' concerns, she says.

Ultimately, it falls to the School Board to enforce the code. The inspectors themselves "have no punitive method of making the contractor perform," Blackwood says.

Repeated messages left for board members, including Carole Andrews and Vice Chair Stephanie Kraft, were not returned.

The 2002 grand jury report certainly didn't exude confidence about board oversight: "Over the past 15 years, the school board may have lost the public's confidence in its ability to spend taxpayers' money wisely in the construction of our schools." But the report did make crystal clear what action that elected body should take: "Having tough and aggressive inspectors, therefore, seems highly desirable. Without somebody looking out for the best interest of the taxpayers, schools may continue to be built as poorly as they were ten to fifteen years ago."

That's what this whole trial comes down to, Blackwood avows. "What we want is that the public really takes notice of this," she says. "It's their money."