School Board Dodges Blame for Bust

The lead story on this morning's Sun-Sentinel front page, "Crowded Schools and Empty Seats," was little more than a board response to my Friday post that exposed the bogus and potentially fraudulent building boom at the School Board that has left the district essentially broke and with 35,000 empty seats to boot.

You can always tell by the response (it's great to be rebutted on the front page of the newspaper, by the way) what exactly you got right. And it looks like after reading the Sentinel story by Kathy Bushouse (who can be a very good reporter) that I got everything right.

The Sentinel didn't mention the fact that the board intentionally avoided a state-mandated school survey that would have shown its building bonanza wasn't warranted. Or that Construction Czar Michael Garretson clearly ordered project managers to rush contracts through before the state belatedly put the kibosh on the whole scheme. But it did provide the board's defense, and therein lies its value. Take this strange line about Supt. Jim Notter basically denying the gist of my post:

Broward Schools Superintendent James Notter said the district didn't set out to build classroom space it didn't need. The district has to meet strict class size requirements in the 2010-2011 school year, and adding classrooms at critically overcrowded western schools was often cheaper than busing students to schools in the east. It also avoided potentially nasty battles over boundary changes.  

Key word: "avoided." You see, the law demands that the district fill existing seats rather than overbuild. So Notter et al. intentionally broke the law and kept right on building. That way, they wouldn't have had to deal with those "nasty battles" over boundary changes. Because that would have taken responsible leadership and -- horror of horrors -- stopped the billion-dollar building machine that funded board members' campaigns and gave construction officials like the derelict Michael Garretson great power and influence with his buddies in the industry. Here's what Board Member Jennifer Gottlieb, pictured above in all her made-up glory, told the Sentinel: "You can't just pick up kids and move them from one end of the county. Yes, we have empty seats but you can't say that we're going to take all these kids from west Broward and ship them to east Fort Lauderdale. It's not practical."

Now she's just putting some of that make-up on a pig. Gottlieb voted to ignore the law and keep throwing hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars out the door to build schools and additions that never should have been built. That way, she could avoid the difficult political reality and instead keep feeding the clients of her campaign manager, Barbara Miller, and Miller's partner, Neil Sterling. You see, it's Gottlieb's political patrons, Miller and Sterling, who represented Pirtle Construction and Zyscovich Architects, who made out like bandits on the unnecessary and unlawful construction.

See how it works? It's a wonderful cycle. The construction industry hires politically connected lobbyists who fund and run campaigns for board members who then do everything they can to make sure the district keeps throwing huge amounts of money back to the construction industry. Then rinse and repeat.

It's a racket, pure and simple. And here's the real problem for this board: The music has stopped. The party has come crashing down. It went too far. There's no more money -- and our children are going to face years of problems at schools that will go unanswered. It's a huge problem, and it could be a bona fide disaster.

Gottlieb wants to act like all those wealthy white kids in Weston would have to be bused to Dillard. Ridiculous. Reboundaring can be done smartly, with as little effect as possible. It's a gradual process. Would some of those mothers in the west have been a little angry at times? Sure. But that's what leadership is about -- making tough decisions when it matters.

The School Board doesn't have leaders, only tools. And now we get to watch them try to explain their way out of this mess on the pages of the Sun-Sentinel.  

-- All that said, the little story by Akilah Johnson on Board Member Stephanie Kraft's attempt to hide damaging information from audit reports from the public before it's given the ol' Huck Finn Tom Sawyer whitewash by the School Board is telling. (It was also foretold in the comments of the Friday post.) Kraft is out crusading to make the district less apparent. This was precipitated by the Ashbritt audit that showed taxpayers were hosed three quarters of a million bucks after Hurricane Wilma. Kraft is proposing a resolution to make draft reports of audits secret. Bob Parks -- ah, Bob Parks -- responded that he agreed and told Kraft she was doing "good work." Another example of the great leadership at our School Board. (I can't find a link to the story online).

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman