Conflict of Interest 101

By day Fran Klauber is the Broward County School Board's full-time intergovernmental affairs specialist, a job that pays her $57,896 a year to build good relations with the many cities that deal with the board. During her spare time, she's also a Sunrise city commissioner, paid $20,000-plus to steer that city, including making sure Sunrise gets plenty of the school board's projects.

Several school board members now say Klauber's two jobs equal one blatant conflict of interest, and they want to see her school board job terminated.

Klauber's many critics claim she's engineered special favors for Sunrise by using her school board job to help get political pork, in the form of millions of dollars' worth of questionable school projects. So far Klauber has managed to hold on to her school board salary, though her job title is being changed to "Area Board Liaison." Translated from bureaucratese, it means she's still doing PR for the school board, but the emphasis will go from dealing with governments to working with people in the community at large.

The campaign against Klauber has been led by school board vice-chairwoman Darla Carter and board members Judie Budnick and Stephanie Kraft. All point at one particular planned project in Sunrise as the premier example of Klauber's conflict: The $19.2 million "School Y," a planned "environmental magnet school" in southwestern Sunrise near the Weston border. The problem, say several school board members, is that, in a county where there are critical education problems and budget shortfalls, School Y is not a necessity. Even School Y's remaining supporters in Sunrise concede that there is no pressing need for the school.

"There have been too many conflicts," Carter says of Klauber. "There were too many deals made in Sunrise, and people weren't getting their fair share." Budnick says simply that Klauber has given the school board a "black eye."

The controversy surrounding Klauber and School Y is rooted in Klauber's cozy relationship with former school board chairman Don Samuels, who was voted out of office in November. While Samuels, who lives in Sunrise, was running his failed campaign against Kraft last year, Klauber was there stumping for him at every campaign stop.

"She ran Samuels' campaign in Sunrise," says Sunrise commissioner Roger Wishner. "Even when it was normal business hours, and I always wondered if she was supposed to be on the clock at the school board."

Klauber also signed an endorsement for Samuels, Wishner says, and encouraged other elected officials to sign it. At the same time, school board members allege, Samuels was in the midst of negotiations with Klauber's city that were done behind the school board's back, including the building of a youth center at Village Elementary School. Samuels promised that the school board would put $500,000 into building the youth center, yet board members say they knew nothing about it. Klauber was also a vocal supporter of the youth center.

It was School Y, however, that created the biggest furor. The School Y plan is to build a K-through-8 school next to the "Sawgrass Sanctuary," a 20-acre piece of raw land surrounded by development in the western part of the city, near Weston. It is encircled by strip malls, fast-food restaurants, and thousands of housing units. When Sunrise city officials wrote a proposal for a state grant to fund the sanctuary in 1994, they didn't stress those developments. Rather, officials wrote that the school board was committed to building a school next to the pocket of nature they'd saved to "provide an opportunity for the youth of Broward County to understand, at an early age, the natural beauty of South Florida's unique and sensitive environment."

The city won a matching grant to pay for half the $1 million land cost. Another $1.6 million was budgeted to create wetlands and other natural-seeming features on the land. Given the development already there, it was kind of like killing off a species and building a museum to house its skeletal remains.

The school board's commitment to School Y, however, was based on Samuels' support and a letter of support from then-superintendent Frank Petruzielo. But amazingly, neither Samuels nor Petruzielo told the school board about School Y. Klauber, meanwhile, supported School Y and voted with the city commission to go forward with it.

Last June, Samuels, who now says he never did anything improper in his negotiations with Sunrise, and Petruzielo, who failed to return repeated phone calls from New Times, put School Y on the board's five-year plan, slating it to be built this year. When other school board members saw it on the plan, School Y suddenly became "School Why?"

"I thought, 'Why? Why? Why?'" says school board member Darla Carter, who represents Parkland. "We don't need this."

But with Samuels and Petruzielo flexing their political muscle, the five-year plan passed. Carter's was the only vote against it. Current school board chairwoman Lois Wexler -- who says Kraft's victory over Samuels broke an "incestuous circle" between Sunrise and the board -- says she vehemently opposed School Y but voted for the five-year plan anyway, because going against it would have put other important school board projects in jeopardy.

Sunrise city manager Pat Salerno, who refused to comment for this article, led the School Y negotiations, but Klauber herself was no shrinking violet in the deal. In addition to voting for the project, she also effusively praised Samuels and her city at a commission meeting last August after Samuels made a presentation about all the projects the school board planned for Sunrise -- including School Y and the Village Elementary youth center (which hasn't been built and isn't currently in school board plans).

Two months after Klauber and Samuels publicly basked in political glory, the bottom fell out when Kraft stunned Samuels at the polls. Soon thereafter Petruzielo, who lost his strongest supporter in Samuels and was under attack from Wexler and Carter, quit his post. School Y was the next to come under fire, as the school board pushed back its construction from this year to 2005. The reason: Everyone agreed there was no need to build it. The overcrowding in the Sunrise-Weston area is being met with a new high school under construction in Weston. Instead of building School Y, the school board decided to construct two schools in Tamarac on the Sunrise border that will relieve four overcrowded schools in both Tamarac and Sunrise. Tamarac Elementary, for example, is built to hold 920 students and currently has nearly 1500 jamming its classrooms.

Putting School Y on the back burner is possibly the first step, say some board members, in phasing out the project altogether. "School Y is exactly where School Y is supposed to be," says Wexler, of the project's recent fall into obscurity. "As we move through the years, we'll keep looking at it. If there is a need to build at that site, we will. If there isn't, we won't."

The old guard in Sunrise, in the meantime, is up in arms about what Mayor Steven Feren calls the school board's "flip-flop." "Suddenly, it seems, there are many reasons why funding should be stripped from School Y," Feren wrote in a letter to the school board earlier this month. "We are somewhat bewildered."

Feren says another reason for Sunrise officials' consternation is that the city approved a 175-unit townhouse complex, called Riverwalk, right next to the planned sanctuary, with the explicit understanding that School Y would be built for the new residents. The planned school has been used by Sunrise officials for years as a selling point to bring developers into the area. As of last week, Riverwalk, which is busy preselling townhouses, was still promising potential buyers that the school would be built there next year.

The political fallout of School Y's demise only increased the tension between Klauber and the school board, especially with Kraft. Klauber, while she was supposed to be facilitating good relations between cities and the school board, has been heard badmouthing Kraft in public, even while being paid by the school board to smooth out governmental relations. "Klauber basically said that Kraft was no good for Sunrise," says Tamarac commissioner Karen Roberts. "It was uncalled for, not only because [Klauber] is an elected official, but also because of the fact that she was a school board employee."

Kraft says she confronted Klauber about it, and Klauber told her she has "no choice" but to criticize her for not supporting School Y and the youth center.

"I just want [Klauber] to stop," Kraft says. "I don't want to see her fired."

When reached by telephone at her school board office, Klauber refused to comment about the matter, saying that she couldn't talk on the phone. The reason: "It would be a conflict of interest if I talked about Sunrise while I'm working at the school board," she said. "I take that kind of thing very seriously."

Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address:
[email protected]