El Jefe

Steal from the Kiddies, Spoil the Rich

Hollywood schools its citizens, young and old, in stupidity

Same day. Same greed. Same cockeyed judgment.

The only difference between two votes cast Wednesday, February 26, was the victim: City of Hollywood commissioners screwed taxpayers, while the Broward County School Board shortchanged the city's kids.

In the afternoon, commissioners agreed to offer developer Steve Berman $3 million in incentives to build a sprawling, 300-condominium complex across from Young Circle, the city's central park. A few hours later, the Broward School Board rejected angry parents' pleas and did virtually nothing to help Hollywood Central, one of four critically overcrowded elementary schools in the county.

Yup. Leaders of Broward's second-largest city gave away a bundle of public cash so the school could be even more crammed with kids. It's so bad now that students are forced to squeeze 12 at a time into a 10-by-15-foot room and, in some cases, to share a toilet with 69 other kids. With more than 1,750 new and planned condos/apartments in the city center, which feeds the school, things are likely to get much, much worse.

The unhappy coincidence of City Commission and School Board votes should send a message: There's a nasty downside to the development fever that afflicts the region's urban areas, particularly Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, and West Palm Beach. We and our kids are just starting to pay the price.

"That Hollywood continues to approve these projects for the future is flat-out stupidity," says Corey Yugler, whose daughter, Hallie, is in kindergarten at the school. "That the board didn't deal with what is happening today at Hollywood Central is negligence."

Last Wednesday's drama started to unfold a decade or so ago, when parents and kids began to repopulate South Florida's coastal areas, which were then dominated by elderly residents. The trend has been well-documented: Family moves to suburbs. Family gets sick of suburbs. Family moves east, closer to beaches, movie theaters, restaurants, and more densely populated areas. It's part of the reason that housing prices in coastal areas have skyrocketed of late.

Hollywood Central, my neighborhood school, hasn't kept up. Though it was built in 1995 to make room for 776 kids, 1,225 pupils are there now. The music room, computer lab, science room, and teacher's lounge are now classrooms. A temporary overflow building called a "portable" fills a portion of the tiny playground, and there are no playing fields.

Like the school's problems, its demographics mirror all of South Florida. Some students are well-to-do, but more than half come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for free lunches. About a quarter speak a language other than English at home -- mostly Spanish, Romanian, and Russian.

Meanwhile, Hollywood commissioners -- following the lead of Fort Lauderdale, where the skyline is presently being transformed by more than 2,100 new condos and apartments -- have gone gaga for development. They've approved dozens of small buildings and tentatively backed four monstrosities in the area that supplies students to Hollywood Central, which the commissioners have constantly, and hypocritically, termed a priority.

In 2000, the city agreed to put up $3.6 million to help a Texas firm, JPI, build 253 new apartments downtown. Jefferson at Young Circle, as the development is called, recently opened. Last June, commissioners "voiced strong support," according to the Sun-Sentinel, for plans for more than 700 condos and a new theater on the Circle. Taxpayers will likely have to pony up for some part of this. Then, in November, they backed a blueprint for 225 more units and stores in the shell of the ancient Great Southern Hotel; there will, of course, be a public cost for this plan too.

Then came Wednesday's vote. Three million more taxpayer-supplied smackers to Berman for La Piazza II, which would cost $70 million and break ground in 2004. The complex would include stores, a huge parking garage, and the condos. It would also be less than a half mile from the school. Like the other developers, Berman hopes to take advantage of another taxpayer rip-off -- an $11 million plan to turn Young Circle into an arts park.

Think of the views, baby, the views.

Commissioner Beam Furr, a Flanagan High School teacher who is probably more sympathetic to education than his colleagues on the dais are, says developing the city's downtown will turn around a blighted area. The condos will eventually provide big tax revenues and enliven the troubled shops and restaurants of Hollywood Boulevard and Harrison Street. And, he contends, more singles than families will live in the condos.

Furr acknowledges that the city's building plans might worsen the problems at Hollywood Central but notes that an advisory committee has already met with Broward schools Superintendent Frank Till and others to find a solution. He suggests, perhaps, caching some kids at two nearby schools: Attucks Middle School and Colbert Elementary.

"Are we compounding the problem [at Hollywood Central]? We could be," concedes Furr, who voted in favor of La Piazza II. "But I don't think you can expect development to come to a complete standstill."

Financing schools, he says, is the School Board's job. Moreover, he blames the "board's unwillingness to make significant changes" for the problems at Hollywood Central. "The city shouldn't necessarily be [paying for a school]," he concludes.

The facts get in the way of Furr's response, though. Aventura in Miami-Dade County and Pembroke Pines in Broward are in the midst of helping to pay for charter elementary schools that will open next year. And the two schools where the commissioner would like to send kids are unlikely targets: One is for older kids, and one is on the cusp of being gutted for remodeling. Then there's Furr's claim that there's a lack of kids in downtown apartments. Baloney. A New Times editor recently moved into the JPI project with his school-age daughter, a guy with two kids lives across the hall, and JPI hasn't even begun renting out a building full of empty apartments across the street.

So the more than 100 parents who attended last week's School Board meeting are now left in the cold. They wore Band-Aids to the hearing to signal their demand for a solution that's more than temporary. Yet, because the population is swelling, the board's decision to move 114 kids to another elementary school will only preserve the status quo, which means 40 percent over capacity. "They're like the 'Education Prevention Board,'" comments Melanie Rohrbach, whose daughter, Claire, is in kindergarten. "There is no coordination between [Hollywood Mayor Mara Giulianti] and the School Board."

Rohrbach and others are left with three unsavory choices: (1) try to come up with a place to build an annex to the school, (2) suffer year-round classes, or (3) cap enrollment, which means kids who are latecomers to the neighborhood might have to travel miles to school.

Yet Hollywood Central Principal Fran Merenstein says she's optimistic. She thinks the controversy over the school boundary changes will finally force the board and commission to work together, perhaps to build a new school or radically expand the present one. "If [the city allows] building, they need to look at the effect on the school," she says. "If they don't, there could be a disaster in terms of overcrowding."

The disaster, I am afraid, has already arrived. City commissioners and School Board members seem painfully unaware.

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Chuck Strouse is the former editor in chief of Miami New Times. He has shared two Pulitzer Prizes and won dozens of other awards. He is an honors graduate of Brown University and has worked at newspapers including the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times.
Contact: Chuck Strouse