Busted: School Board's Bogus Building Boom Exposed

     

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In the recently released capital budget for the Broward County School Board, there's something missing: the money.

The budget was slashed from $3.5 billion a couple of years ago to $1.275 billion today, and the bulk of that money -- $763 million -- is going to pay off debt. For all intents and purposes, the mighty School Board construction department is broke.

It's now crystal clear that the madhouse construction of classroom additions and new schools in Broward County is coming to a crash that will rival that of crooked Wall Street banks. The board's irresponsible and possibly criminal actions have wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars and left the district awash in debt.

And it was all a high-stakes game, an orchestrated raid of the public trough that has transferred hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayers' money to a favored pool of School Board contractors and their lobbyists and cronies. High-ranking district officials and the elected School Board members are to blame, all are complicit, and all failed the public in epic fashion.  

The broad sweep of the board's failure and fraud is written in public records. Earlier this decade, the board, apparently spurred on by the housing boom and the easy availability of credit, jumped into building classroom additions and new schools with a vengeance.

From 2002 to 2007, the board's budget for additions and renovations more than doubled, from about $487 million to $1.05 billion. Contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars flowed to politically connected builders like Pirtle Construction and Moss & Associates. 

 
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Notter
The construction orgy has left the county with more than 25,000 empty classroom seats, a number that is expected to rise to 34,800 by 2013 (according to Superintendent James K. Notter). The cost of building all those empty seats isn't too difficult to estimate. Conservatively, all those empty seats would fill about 1,400 classrooms. Multiply that by the average cost of a classroom, $250,000, and you get the total dollar amount that the board overspent during the past several years.

It comes to $350 million down the tubes. How's that for a mind-blowing number?

But even $350 million is likely a woefully low estimate, as there has been a multitude of smaller projects, done at bloated costs, favoring contractors rather than clueless taxpayers or students. This is a school district that has a long history of corruption, but what has happened during the past few years is truly staggering. 

 And it wasn't just available tax money they spent; a ton of it was borrowed. Financial records indicate that the School Board has borrowed about $2 billion through certificates of participation, which are similar to bonds and can be raised without voters' consent. 

The new District Education Facilities Plan, issued Tuesday, clearly spells out the damage done. Over the next five years, the School Board will pay out $763 million in debt service alone. That comes out to 60 percent of all the capital budget's projected expenditures through 2013-14. 

It's just a big mistake, right? They just got carried away with the boom and then the recession blindsided them. Yes, they may be incompetent, but they didn't do it on purpose. They didn't intentionally facilitate what amounts to an epic swindle on the taxpayers, did they? 

Yes, they did. Top officials at the district clearly knew they were pushing through construction that was neither warranted nor

justified. District records show they purposefully ignored lawful checks that are supposed to keep such a calamity from happening to keep the contracts and money flying out the door.

School Board construction, you see, is supposed to be based on in-depth population and student-count studies known as "plant surveys." Those surveys are required by state statute to be redone every five years, before they become outdated and useless.

The survey on which the recent Broward schools construction boom was based was produced in 2001 when classrooms were overcrowded and population growth was forecast. When that survey expired in 2006, the trend had already changed, seats were empty, and the county's population was beginning to decrease. A new School Board survey would have put the kibosh on hundreds of millions of dollars of unnecessary construction projects. Instead, the School Board ignored the law and simply re-adopted the old survey.

And they did it not just for one year, but three years in a row. The gravy train rolled on and district officials went to extreme lengths to see that it didn't stop. And they knew full well that the construction wasn't needed.

Proof, again, is in public records. During a project management meeting on September 25, 2007 -- at the height of the building frenzy -- Deputy Superintendent Michael Garretson, who oversees the construction and facilities department, explicitly ordered district project managers to rush through projects before any new survey was done.  

Garretson, who didn't return a call from the Pulp for comment, told staff that new schools and classroom additions "need to be bid because of the new state survey which is due the last of October, which will most likely remove all of our capacity additions," according to meeting minutes.

It's clear that Garretson is telling the troops to push through the construction projects before the truth is found out that they aren't needed. And one project manager, Michael Marchetti, complained about it in a May 5 email to numerous top officials, including Notter and every single School Board member.

Marchetti wrote that officials like Garretson told all the project managers to "move [classroom additions] along because a new plant survey was looming and the state was going to deny new additions because we were already way over capacity."

Marchetti added: "It would appear that while we were admittedly losing students in those years the board and management continued to knowingly and willingly utilize outdated statistics in order to justify unneeded new construction."

I asked Marchetti about his email and he refused to discuss the details. He did say, though, that the email was greeted with silence from Notter, the board members, and other officials.

The projects kept getting rushed through until late 2008, when the state finally stepped in and forced the district to conduct a new survey. Don't take my word for it, read this November 2008 report from Superintendent Notter, in which he explains that eight years went by without a new survey. When the state suggested the new construction wasn't needed, the district disputed it in an attempt to keep building. "There was controversy between Broward County's student numbers and the state's numbers," Notter wrote.

Last year the state finally forced the board to conduct the survey. As Notter says, all it took was a "preliminary survey" to show that there were tens of thousands of empty seats. But even then Notter and the School Board seemed angry that the state stopped the party. "School board members want to make it clear that it is the state that is mandating the plant survey ... and not the school district," he wrote.

Almost sounds like an apology to the contractors, trying to explain to them that the well going dry wasn't their fault. It was the mean old state.  

By that time, though, the damage was already done, the money already spent, the projects already irrevocably underway. One thing we can be sure of now is that the unnecessary construction is coming to an end. There's no money left for much of anything.

A school needs a new roof? Good luck. All the money has gone to unnecessary classroom additions and new schools. There's zero money budgeted the next five years for new construction or renovations. And there's only a paltry $2 million budgeted next year for any capital improvements at all.

The place is bled dry. Soon there won't even be money to pay the department's employees. The new budget shows that the construction department's $27 million payroll will be reduced to about $14.5 million in two years. That means about half the department staff may lose their their jobs.

They'll pay the price for the greed and negligence of the people entrusted to run the School Board, as will every taxpayer in Broward County. 


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