State Grand Jury Blasts Broward School Board
FORT LAUDERDALE (CBSMiami.com) – A Florida grand jury report released late Friday blasted the elected Broward Country School Board for inefficiency, interference and possible corruption.
The 51-page report said grand jurors would have recommended the board be dissolved if they had the power to do so.
“In fairness to both we didn’t look at everything they do”, grand jurors said, “but sadly, everywhere we did look, we found problems.”
“We have little confidence in their ability. One of the legacies of the Board will be the squandering of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for a mediocre product,” the grand jurors concluded.
Broward Teacher’s Union spokesman John Ristow agrees.
“Millions of their tax dollars have been wasted over the last several years,” Ristow said. “The reality is, if they had any kind of integrity, and kind of courage to do the right thing, that’s exactly what they would do. Monday morning, they would render their resignation.”
The scathing report was issued after there were dozens of interviews with current and former employees at all levels in the school system. the report focused not on the task of educating students, but on the non-instructional parts of the Board’s responsibility, especially the construction of schools, which has been a hot-button issue in Broward.
The report bluntly claims, “A great deal of taxpayer money spent on this construction has been wasted as the direct result of the Board’s interference and self dealing as well as a result of their failure to engage in any meaningful oversight of the District’s building activities.”
“For at least the last 15 years the District has operated a facilities and construction department with little regard for quality, accountability or fiscal responsibility, yet the Board has done nothing to address these issues,” the report states.
The report blasts the school board for what it called, “meddling into details that should be within the purview of the Superintendent,” something grand jurors claimed “worsened existing problems and created new ones.”
But even though the grand jurors blamed the board for causing Superintendent Jim Notter problems, it also leveled criticism at him, saying Notter has allowed the “meddling” and claiming the district needs a “strong superintendent to stand up to the board.”
“We cannot imagine any level of incompetence that would explain what we have seen,’’ the report states. “Therefore we are reluctantly compelled to conclude that at least some of this behavior can best be explained by corruption of our officials by contractors, vendors and their lobbyists.’’
The grand jury thinks things in Broward are so bad, “But for the Constitutional mandate that requires an elected School Board for each District, our first and foremost recommendation would have been to abolish the Broward County School Board altogether.”
The grand jury report cites numerous examples, especially in the area of school construction. It is critical of the board for allowing millions of dollars to be spent building new schools in areas where there were already empty classrooms, primarily in the eastern part of the county, while failing to address overcrowding in western schools.
The report delves extensively into what it blasts as Broward’s practice of allowing new schools to be opened using Temporary Certificate of Occupancy, or TCO’s, which often stay in place for years, allowing what in effect legally unfinished schools to be used by children.
The report also dealt with what it claims are policies in place that keep incompetent or inefficient employees, “the perception that no one ever gets fired for incompetence at the district.”
Rather than firing someone for doing a bad job, grand jurors found, “The solution for many departments is to simply add more staff, give the critical work to the new employees and move the incompetent and lazy to another less desirable job or location, or left at the job but given little or nothing to do,” a policy it blamed the administration and the school board that oversees it for allowing.
The grand jury report blames a lot of these problems on what it calls ‘micromanaging’ by a school board not qualified to make the decisions.
“The way the Board carries out its day to day business is set up to allow wasteful and dubious spending on ill conceived ideas, and to direct that spending towards friends, acquaintances or supporters of Board members without any accountability.”
Citing a number of financial decisions directed by board members, the grand jurors concluded, “When it comes to spending taxpayer’s money the Board is reckless.”
POTENTIAL FOR CORRUPTION
The report asked why board members seem to favor certain construction companies or why it works so hard to keep some district contractors in place, and blamed politics.
“Why Board members are so keen on selecting contractors is obvious,” the grand jury found. “The ability to steer, or even to seem to have the ability to influence where millions of dollars in contracts go, is lifeblood to politicians.”
The report said, “One long time Board member stated openly that he would never support a hard bid for a project again. Not surprisingly the most generous supporters to Board campaigns are contractors and their subcontractors, as well as their lobbyists, friends and families.”
“We agree with witnesses that testified that the Board is in many respects a training ground for newbie politicians, where unfortunately bad habits are learned.”
The grand jurors raised significant ethical questions, including the acceptance of gifts, and criticized the board for not taking a harder look at potential conflicts.
“It may ultimately turn out that there is no misconduct by anyone on the Board or at the District, but the failure to even inquire and demand answers is inexcusable.”
The grand jurors made 21 recommendations, including:
- Refusal of campaign contributions from anyone doing business with the board
- Mandatory ethics training
- Cut the size of the school board in half, to 5.
- Allow voters to decide if the district superintendent should be elected
- Create an independent office of Inspector General to monitor the Board and District
- Prevent board members from being involved in the selection of contractors, vendors, or financial institutions.
While the major findings against the nation’s 6th largest school district were oddly released after business hours at the start of a weekend, it immediately drew reaction.
The Broward Teachers Union, which has issued severe criticism of it’s own against the board and Superintendent Notter, called the report justification of their concerns.
“The grand jury’s report supports what many BTU members have been saying for years,” said the statement by BTU President Pat Santeramo, “concerning undue influence of district contractors who at the same time allegedly contributed to the campaigns of School Board members.”
“Voters did not need the grand jury’s highly critical report to know Broward schools required a change and voted for new School Board members Nora Rupert, Laurie Rich-Levinson, Patricia Good, and David Thomas last fall.”
Provided a copy of the report by CBS4 news partner The Miami Herald, Superintendent Notter said, “Obviously, we take the report seriously.” Notter said the report and it’s supporting documents would get a thorough review, and, “we will expeditiously take the necessary corrective actions.”
But Ristow takes issue with Notter’s response.
“Superintendent Notter really has an excuse for everything,” Ristow said.