Broward News

Nova High Debate Teacher Ran "Surreptitious Business" Out of Her Classroom, Audit Says

A high school debate teacher ran a food concession out of her classroom, gave grades of "incomplete" to students who didn’t meet fundraising targets, and pushed an expensive summer camp run by her husband, according to a new internal report by Broward County Public Schools’ chief auditor.  

The report claims that district policies and procedures were circumvented at Nova High School in Davie, where a debate teacher handled club finances by using an "Independent School Related Organization" — a booster club.  The report explains that the teacher retired just as school police launched an investigation into the debate team’s finances.

As the Sun-Sentinel reported last year, Lisa Miller retired last year as Nova's debate teacher. Under her leadership, Nova became the top-ranked debate team in the state and was among the top ten in the nation. Her students went on to schools like Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania. In 2014, the National Forensic League added her to their hall of fame — the highest honor for high school debate coaches in the country.

Miller retired just short of her 30-year anniversary at Nova High School in Davie. At the time of her retirement, Miller was making $73,550 a year.

The audit report explains that there was both a Debate Club and a Debate Booster Club at Nova and that funds were mishandled and comingled inappropriately rather than being deposited into the school's internal accounts.  Says the audit: 

During the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 fiscal years, it was noted that the school’s administration improperly allowed the Nova Debate Booster Club’s parents and teachers to handle many activities and financial transactions that should have been receipted into and disbursed from the school’s internal funds, which averaged approximately $300,000 per year. This practice violated School Board Policies.
A teacher at a nearby elementary school had daughters in Nova's debate club and served as its booster club treasurer. The audit says that collected monies were sometimes given to one of the daughters "who would often walk to the elementary school with thousands of dollars to be deposited into the Nova Debate Booster Club’s bank account."

Furthermore, the report says, students were required to either sell candy or pay approximately $100 in cash each semester. Otherwise, they would receive a grade of “Incomplete” in the class. 

Last July, one anonymous student wrote of Miller on
“She is money-hungry. In order to pass in the class, you must have enough money to pay for it. Yes, we do fundraise but you must meet a 75 point requirement in order to receive an A. That sound[s] easy, but a huge 60[-count] candy box is only worth 13 points. If i'm doing my math correctly, that means we must sell over 4 boxes in one quarter to reach this requirement. On several occasions, I would have to pay over $50 out of my pocket to receive an A. I'm sorry, but I didn't know we paid for grades, Lisa.”
The audit also explains that Miller "pressured students to attend" her husband's camp: 
The Debate teacher held a lead role as a member of the Nova Debate Booster Club. The Debate teacher’s husband owned Florida Forensic Institute (FFI), a company that held a debate camp at Nova High School each summer for Nova High students, as well as students from other high schools. This was a conflict of interest.....

Per discussions with parents and former Nova High School teachers, there was an understanding among the students and parents of the school’s Debate Program, that if students wanted to participate in the Debate tournaments and be successful during the Debate season, they would have to attend the FFI Debate camp over the summer. In addition, a former teacher stated that the Debate teacher would come into her afternoon classes to recruit students to sign up for her husband’s FFI Debate camp. The students in the Debate class were strongly encouraged to attend FFI Debate Camp over the summer. If a student did not attend the camp, we were told that the Debate teacher would often not let that student travel or participate in Debate activities. The cost for local students was $1,395 to attend camp, and $2,350 for out-of-town students. According to the Nova Debate Booster Club Treasurer, she was directed by the Debate teacher to issue checks to FFI for “scholarships” for students, which was actually financial aid to attend the FFI camp (see Exhibit 4). Neither the Treasurer nor the Booster Club parents were aware of which students benefited from these scholarships, or the criteria needed to receive a scholarship or the amounts issued per student. There were no invoices to support the disbursements. 
Furthermore, the audit says, the debate teacher ran a food concession called the Closet out of her classroom. This "surreptitious business" sold items like Hot Pockets, mac-n-cheese, and Moon Pies and competed for sales with the school's own vending machines and food program. The audit also says that people were told that monies were tax-deductible donations even though the Booster Club was not a registered 501(c)3, and that when students went to a debate tournament, "some students paid different amounts, based on the Debate teacher’s discretion and other factors."

Miller has remained silent about the investigation into the debate club’s finances. Calls to the phone number listed for the Florida Forensic Institute, which redirects to Howard Miller’s law office, were not returned.

The Broward Schools police investigation was closed on May 9 without charges. The audit report says it will be presented to the School Board's audit committee on June 16 and to the School Board on July 26. It is unclear whether Miller will face any repercussions.  Nadine Drew, a public affairs specialist for Broward County Public Schools, said the district does not comment on audit reports.

Natalie Rawlings, whose daughter graduated from Nova High last year, said many parents were willing to overlook the apparent conflict of interest. “Everyone was terrified of Lisa Miller,” she said. “She made it sound like she could write a recommendation letter and get your kid a scholarship.” (Note: Rawlings served as New Times nightlife editor from 2000 to 2001.)

Some of Miller’s former students, however, support her. Among them is Jared Odessky, who graduated from Nova in 2011. He argues that the claim that students were pressured to attend Miller’s husband’s debate camp is “categorically false” and that the emphasis on fundraising was necessary given the sad state of funding for extracurricular activities and the high cost of traveling to tournaments around the country.

In addition, he said, having Miller as a mentor changed the course of his life. He had originally planned to attend the University of Florida, but, after she told him to think bigger, he applied to Columbia University early decision and was accepted. With her encouragement, he decided to pursue a career in politics and now works as a legislative aide to a New York state senator.

“She made me feel comfortable to speak up in public and assert myself in tough situations and, I think, to come out of the closet,” he said. “The debate team was a safe space for queer students, which didn’t necessarily exist in the rest of the school, and people came out to Lisa before their parents. She was a mother to so many of us.”

Just a few months before her retirement, Miller was quoted in the National Speech and Debate Association’s magazine. “I don’t run a debate club, I run a business,” she said. Judging by the length of the audit report, things might have ended differently if she’d run Nova High’s debate club more like a debate club.

Here is the audit report: 

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Antonia Farzan is a fellow at New Times. After receiving a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, she moved to South Florida to pursue her dream of seeing a manatee and meeting DJ Khaled (ideally at the same time). She was born and raised in Rhode Island and has a BA in classics from Hamilton College.