Hallandale Beach Blog -A common sense public policy overview offering a critical perspective on the current events, politics, govt., public policy, sports scene and pop culture of the U.S., South Florida and Europe, especially the UK and Sweden. In particular, Broward & Miami-Dade County, and the cities of Hallandale Beach, Hollywood & Aventura. Trust me when I tell you, this part of Florida is NOT the Land of Lincoln. Pictured in upper-left is Hallandale Beach's iconic beachball-colored Water Tower on State Road A1A; September 2008 photo by me, South Beach Hoosier. © 2013 Hallandale Beach Blog, All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wallets of Broward County taxpayers vs. Broward School Board, Ron Book & AshBritt Inc.; Why you need to get involved

Time for 'Profiles in Courage' and Accountability?

Consider this crazy scenario as you read this
letter below, which was sent by local Hollywood
neighborhood citizen activists to Supt.
and the Broward School Board.

Despite all the things we've been reading and
hearing about for years about how the Broward
School Board's myriad machinations that,
in retrospect, often seemed to have been done
almost as much for the personal or business
benefit of their retinue of consultants, lobbyists
and political contributors,
as for, you know, the children, we're now

presented with a real 'teachable moment,'
as opposed to the recent beer brouhaha at
the White House.

A moment that may go a long way towards
informing us what the actual future of the
Broward School system and the School Board
is, and whether it will lose what little remaining
public support it has, and whether both will
need to be completely re-engineered, sooner

rather than later.

From my perspective, this seems like precisely
the sort of common sense financial issue
the public needs to weigh-in, and publicly
support the work product of the internal auditors.

Based on what I've read and heard in numerous

conversations with folks around the county who
understand this issue far better than I do, the
Broward County School Board, in attempting
to 'nip it in the bud' as Barney Fife would say,
however they can, is, apparently perfectly

willing to undermine their own professional
auditors, if need be, and toss them overboard,
if it greatly displeases Ash-Britt and their
lobbyist, Ron Book, who also lobbies for the
City of Hallandale Beach in Tallahassee.

The Broward School Board doesn't like the
picture the auditors' numbers have painted
Not because they're not accurate or don't
add-up, but precisely because they do

Because it means they're going to have to
actually do something they're loathe to do:
stand-up and be held accountable for either
doing the right thing -or not.

The reason is because those numbers paint
a map that everyone can easily understand.
It shows how the Broward County School
System and its School Board got to the point
it is today where it is neither trusted,
respected or admired.

And then they (Stephanie Kraft) have the

gall to say that drafts of govt. documents
shouldn't be given to the -Hello!- Audit
Committee, until the dept. under scrutiny
gets the chance to respond.

: If you say that it's unfair to draw
any hypotheses based on just the auditors'
"drafts," then why should School Board
members get anything but the final
complete version also, since the Board
members are just as likely -if not more-
to leak the information they're privvy to?

If anything, they have more incentive!

Below is some information and links that
may help bring you up to speed on the

current issue regarding the audits,
as well as the email addresses of the
Broward County School Board, so you
can let your Board member know that
you DON'T want to see a whitewash.

If they go down that road, there's no
going back.

Be sure to read the reader comments at

the Sun-Sentinel's Schools blog, as they
are full of very useful information that
provides additional context and perspective!

As of today, the "final" audit is scheduled
to go before the Broward School Board on
Tuesday Aug. 18th, but check for updates
every so often until then, in case they try a
surprise maneuver of some sort.

From: pete

To: notter@browardschools.com ; maureendinner@browardschools.com ; Jennifer L. Gottlieb ; Ann Murray ; bgallagher@browardschools.com ; robin.bartleman@browardschools.com ; stephanie.kraft@browardschools.com ; jbrooks@browardschools.com ; phyllis.hope@browardschools.com ; marcia.simmons@browardschools.com

Cc: patreilly@browardschools.com

Sent: Tuesday, August 04, 2009 12:48 PM

Subject: Audit's

To the Superintendent, School Board Chairwoman, Vice-Chairwoman, and Members

The North Central Hollywood Civic Association is taking this opportunity to extend our deep appreciation to Pat Reilly, Chief Auditor, his entire staff, and the Audit Committee for their excellent work and commitment to ethical system management. The audits that have come forth have pointed out savings to the district and taxpayers, but have also brought to light practices in this school district that must be changed.

The Auditors nor the Committee attempted to cover up these unpleasant findings, but have focused on system improvement and accountability to the taxpayers. The latest audit clearly reveals the need to recoup almost $800,000, which is sorely needed in this district that has serious and extensive financial shortfalls.

North Central citizens are unhappy with the double whammy high-ranking Officials created for our community. Not only did we lose our 60 year old Lincoln Park for an unnecessary Elementary School, now we have learned that there is no money for the promised renovations at Oakridge Elementary. School Officials LIED to us repeatedly at meetings regarding these two schools and Lincoln Park. We ask you to take swift action on those responsible and restore our community park immediately.

We commend the auditors and the committee members, and urge you to take heed of the findings and ensure that all departments implement what the auditors recommend.


Ellen Mata, President civicred@aol.com

Pete Brewer, VP pcbrew@bellsouth.net

For more information on the activities of
the North Central Hollywood Civic Association,

see http://www.hccacentral.org/northcentral.htm


Hollywood neighborhood map:

To see what problems the above letter
refers to with regard to Lincoln Park,
read these two articles from the past
seven months.

South Florida Sun-Sentinel


Sergy Odiduro Staff Writer
April 5, 2009

Ground was recently broken on what will become Hollywood's first new elementary school in almost 40 years.

City officials, School Board representatives and members of the community gathered for the groundbreaking ceremony for Elementary School "C," a $25 million project at 2230 Lincoln St.

"It's going to be a great addition to our school system," said School Board member Jennifer Gottlieb.

The two-story, 111,795- square-foot facility will serve more than 800 students from kindergarten to fifth grade. The site, scheduled to open in 2010, is adjacent to Lincoln Park, which is also undergoing renovations. The school will have shared access to the park through a lease agreement with the city.

"We've been working on this for six years," said Vice Mayor Beam Furr. "It's one of the best redevelopment projects that we could possibly imagine."

The park's makeover is funded by up to $350,000 from the city and about $300,000 from the school district. The city's contribution comes from the bond issue approved by Hollywood voters in 2004.

Improvements include walking trails designed to be educational with a shade garden, botanical garden and butterfly gardens; landscaping; a tot lot with shade structure; softball field; lighting; game tables; benches; basketball courts; playgrounds for kindergarten and elementary-aged students; and bike racks.

Residents will have access to the walking trails and tot lot from sunrise to sunset. The softball field, basketball courts and other playgrounds will open after school and on weekends.

Mayor Peter Bober said the joint project with the school district is a great idea.

"We worked very closely with the School Board on this project," he said. "This is an ambitious project because we unified the city with our school."

Schools Superintendent James Notter agreed.

"When I look out on the dirt piles and cleared land, I can only envision a beautiful new school, fully equipped with the latest technology and hundreds of children starting their road to their training," he said. "It will anchor the community. It will galvanize the community."

Last year, some residents weren't as enthusiastic about the project and voiced concerns over whether the school was needed, citing declining student enrollment in Broward County.

Notter said it will likely be a Montessori school, which he and city officials said would be a draw for residents.

"People ... spend a lot of money sending their children to private Montessori schools," Notter said. "Here you have the opportunity to have a state-of-the-art, fully equipped, technology-driven facility with the great likelihood that it will be a Montessori school, and it will all be for free. You can't beat that."

"This project is about the future," Bober said. "We're looking at what the population is going to be like in five to 10 years from now. We are going to get a lot of kids and parents who want to send them here."

Sergy Odiduro can be reached at sodiduro@tribune.com.
Miami Herald

Building schools comes to a pause

By Patricia Mazzei
February 9, 2009

With families leaving the Broward public schools in droves, school district officials are considering the best way to fill a long-planned school they have committed to building in Hollywood -- including turning it into a much-desired Montessori magnet or a combined elementary and middle school.

The school, to be built adjacent to Lincoln Park, near Johnson Street and Dixie Highway, has been in the works for years but has been delayed as the school and city ironed out kinks in their agreement to share some park land. Neighbors have also raised concerns about how divvying up the space would work.

When the school was planned several years ago, the district had just gone through years of explosive growth. But Broward has lost about 17,000 students since 2004. Miami-Dade has lost thousands more, and both districts have curtailed school construction as a result.

Some schools -- like the one in Hollywood, set for an early March groundbreaking -- are so far along that the question now is how to make them attract students in an era of declining enrollment.

"We have seen the enrollments drop, but that's not to say that in three years we don't get a flush of kids again," said Joel Herbst, area superintendent for the part of the district that includes Hollywood. "The key is that you're ready and prepared for that."

One possibility is to turn the Hollywood school, known as Elementary School C, into Broward's first K-8 center and third Montessori magnet. The middle school would attract more students, and a magnet program would allow kids from outside Hollywood to enroll, though some of the school's approximately 800 seats would be set aside exclusively for the neighboring community.

South Broward parents have been clamoring for another public Montessori school to ease the demand and the commute to Virginia Shuman Young Elementary and Sunrise Middle, both in Fort Lauderdale. Virginia Shuman Young has a waiting list of 700 to 1,000 students, according to the district.

"If whatever formula they have there could apply here, that would be great," said Shari Robbins of east Hollywood, whose 5-year-old daughter is on the waiting list for the Fort Lauderdale school. "It's so creative, and you can tell that the students are thriving and learning."

Despite being designed as an elementary, the new school could be configured into a K-8 down the line, said Mike Garretson, the district's construction chief.

Boundaries for the school have not been drawn yet, nor does the school have a principal.

District officials said they're not worried about filling the school -- no matter what grades or programs it offers -- because the sputtering economy is forcing some charter schools to close and other families to move their kids out of private schools.

"We want to bring these students back into the system," said board vice chairwoman Jennifer Gottlieb, a Virginia Shuman Young parent who has been pushing for the K-8 Montessori idea.

The district pieced together land for the school, which would be Hollywood's first in more than 38 years, by buying about 50 homes around Lincoln Park and leasing half of the school's five acres from the city, with the agreement to share some fields and courts outside school hours. A portion of the park would be open to the public all the time.

Hollywood is putting about $350,000 of taxpayer money into park improvements.

Delays on moving trees and redesigning a water and sewer line, among other things, have pushed back the district's plans to open the school this fall. Construction is expected to take 11 months, with the school opening for the 2010-11 school year.

The slowdown has also increased the project's $34 million price tag, with School Board members agreeing to add almost $760,000 last week.


Now back to the audits:

District auditor criticized for "editorializing"
Posted by Kathy Bushouse on August 4, 2009 05:35 PM
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

August 3, 2009

By Scott Travis; Akilah Johnson

If you lost your job and are looking for job training, you have a lot of choices.

In Broward there are three technical education centers that are part of Broward County Public Schools. The schools are Atlantic Technical Center in Coconut Creek, McFatter Technical Center in Davie and Sheridan Technical Center in Hollywood.

A sampling of blogs from the SunSentinel. For more, go to SunSentinel.com/blogs

Carole Friedlander, projects coordinator at Atlantic Technical, said these schools "are fully accredited; have articulation agreements that transfer credits to colleges and community colleges; and offer more than 30 programs that include health/medical careers, business management, information technology, automotive technology, culinary arts, cosmetology, manufacturing, and building & construction trades."

- Scott Travis

Lobbyist's presence draws scrutiny

There was quite a bit to cover during last month's public vetting of a controversial audit claiming the district overpaid more than $765,000 to contractors who repaired portables after Hurricane Wilma.

Lobbyist Ron Book's involvement was one detail presented in the audit. He was present at the initial meet-and-greet between contractors and district officials after Wilma blew through Broward County in 2005.

Audit Committee member Anthony De Meo asked, "Is it normal for a lobbyist to be part of the initial meeting?"

Superintendent James Notter said it's not normal but it's not uncommon either.

- Akilah Johnson

I've never met Herald education beat reporter
Patricia Mazzei in person, so I can't say much
about her one way or the other.

I've sent emails and bcc's to her about various
education and public policy issues over the past
few months, but she's never responded to a
single one, which is her choice, of course.

So, that said, HOW in a story about a Broward
County School Board vote, where four

of the nine members don't even bother
to show-up, and only one Board member
(Maureen Dinnen) is even mentioned
by name in the article, do you NOT
mention the names of the School Board
members who are AWOL in the article?

Why in the year 2009, do Herald reporters
in their stories continue to treat actual

votes by elected officials -and who made
them- as TOP SECRET info?
(That drove me crazy last year with their
coverage of the Broward County Charter
Review Commission.)

Especially since the Herald doesn't bother
to at least put that important voting info

on their website version of the article,
like they ought to.
This is yet another example of the Herald
website being grossly underutilized.

Miami Herald

BROWARD SCHOOLS: Diminished Broward school budget passes first test - A shrunken Broward school district budget moved forward with practically no discussion by sullen School Board members

By Patricia Mazzei
July 31, 2009

With little discussion and much resignation, Broward School Board members signed off Thursday night on the first draft of the district's much diminished budget.

''We are hurting our children,'' Chairwoman Maureen Dinnen said before the 5-0 vote. ''There is no way around it.''

No other board member commented on the budget. Four members were absent.

The tentative $3.58 billion proposal, which takes into account spending for day-to-day operations and big-ticket capital projects, is about $1.5 billion less than last year's $5 billion budget.

It includes very little money for school construction, maintenance and technology -- and no funds for teacher raises.

The district is still negotiating a contract with the Broward Teachers Union for the upcoming school year. The union has asked for a 3-percent raise as of July 1 and a 4-percent increase as of Jan. 1, 2010. The district has proposed no raise and a three-day unpaid furlough.

Only a handful of residents attended Thursday's meeting, and none spoke.

The school district faced a $158 million operating budget shortfall this year, which it blamed on falling property values and a decline in funding from the state -- $130 million over the past two years.

The district trimmed its expenses last year, but it spared Broward schools and employees a bigger hit by using $102 million in one-time reserves to cushion the blow.

Now the district has to close that funding gap without the reserves it put to use last year.

Federal stimulus money has fended off worse cuts, Schools Superintendent Jim Notter has said.

''I feel that the budget that's presented makes effective and efficient use of the very limited resources provided to us from Tallahassee,'' he said Thursday, before asking the public to put pressure on the state to focus on education.

School Board members in Miami-Dade, which faced a $166 million shortfall, gave preliminary approval earlier this week to a $4.8 billion budget that makes some cuts and forgoes teacher raises -- but also includes no layoffs and more rainy-day fund money.

To balance its budget, the Broward district pared the school and central office budgets by 4 percent, saving about $68 million.

Those cuts, along with declining student enrollment, were partly to blame for almost 400 teachers losing their jobs last month -- though the district has since rehired 170 of them.

An additional 19 resigned or declined moves to other positions.

Other cuts include closing an administrative office, eliminating some district-level jobs and scaling back several middle school sports programs.

Taking most of the hit from the budget ax is funding for capital projects, which plummeted from almost $2.6 billion last year to $1.1 billion this year. The district scrapped dozens of school construction, maintenance and technology projects that it can no longer afford.

Last month, Notter and the board rejected an idea to raise taxes to save some of those expensive projects after realizing the extra money would not be enough to back hefty construction loans.

The property tax rate for schools will still go up by a hair, from $7.42 per $1,000 of taxable assessed property value to $7.43. Schools officials attributed the increase to state lawmakers raising the required minimum tax levy for school districts.

Despite the tiny increase in the rate, the district will receive $127 million less in property taxes than it did last year due to falling home values, financial chief Ben Leong said.

School taxes are the biggest portion of a Broward homeowner's tax bill, about 37 percent. Miami-Dade tentatively raised its rate to $8 from $7.80.

The budget will not be finalized until after a second hearing scheduled for Sept. 3.


Broward School Board gives initial approval to budget, higher tax rate

Posted by Kathy Bushouse on July 30, 2009 06:46 PM



By Akilah Johnson on July 27, 2009 04:30 PM
South Florida Sun-Sentinel


By Kathy Bushouse Staff Writer
July 25, 2009

Broward Schools Superintendent James Notter said Friday that he might tap someone on staff instead of an outside auditor to review a controversial report claiming the district overpaid more than $765,000 to contractors who repaired portable classrooms damaged by Hurricane Wilma.

The district has an attorney who specializes in construction issues, and Notter said that person may be asked to review the case.

Notter said he needs to meet with the district's legal department before deciding whether to use someone in-house or go to an outside group to look at the audit report. But he said having a "third-party eyeball" is prudent before pursuing money from the contractors, as the audit recommends.

On Thursday, Notter told the district's audit committee he planned to use an outside auditor. But on Friday, he could not say how much that would cost the cash-strapped district, which in June laid off nearly 400 teachers. The district has since rehired 133 of them.

Notter said before taking any action, "I need to take [the report] and go through it with a fine-toothed comb with our legal counsel."

It's unusual for the district to bring in a third party to review an audit, said audit committee member Charlotte Greenbarg, who acted as chairwoman for Thursday's meeting. But she doesn't think the district is trying to impede the auditors' findings.

Rather, she said she thinks Notter is "trying to avoid a lawsuit" by having either someone on staff or with an outside firm look at the documents.

The district's audit states that C&B Services of Texas performed unnecessary work and submitted inflated, "falsified" legal bills for repair work on 84 portable classrooms.

It also recommends the district seek a $765,608 refund from another company, AshBritt Inc. of Pompano Beach, that later claimed it, not C&B Services, was the contractor on the job.

Committee members also demanded an investigation by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, and state authorities.

AshBritt representatives were not allowed to speak at Thursday's meeting, but after the meeting denied any wrongdoing.

School Board members Maureen Dinnen and Stephanie Kraft, who attended the audit committee meeting, both said they supported having a third party review the audit.

"I look at the outside people not as coming in and changing everything, but as a third party, fresh set of eyes," Dinnen said.

Kathy Bushouse can be reached at kbushouse@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4556.
Miami Herald

BROWARD SCHOOLS: Broward school district audit finds billing errors - The school district's audit committee agreed there was some sloppy billing from two contractors after Hurricane Wilma, but a few members took issue with suggestions of fraud and collusion

By Patricia Mazzei
July 24, 2009

The showdown over a controversial audit saying the Broward school district overpaid more than $765,000 in classroom repairs after Hurricane Wilma came down to accountants poring over 3-year-old invoices for several hours Thursday.

Their conclusion: There were problems with the way two contractors billed Broward for fixing roofs and drying portable classrooms after the 2005 storm.

But the audit committee, made up of experts who do not work for the district, took issue with the report's tone, saying it went too far in suggesting some overbilling may have been intentional fraud or collusion.

The strong language may have put off facilities and construction staff, keeping them from drafting the best response, suggested one audit committee member.

''The words that were thrown around in this audit maybe prevented us from getting the best result,'' said Ellen Colonnese.

However, she acknowledged the report's bottom line: The district was improperly billed by two contractors.

''A mistake was done,'' she said.

Other members stood behind the entire report, which goes to the School Board next month.

The audit has flared tempers among some board members and district construction and facilities staff for suggesting some of the work done by C & B Services and AshBritt was unnecessary -- and that some bills may have been falsified.

At the heart of the matter is which of the companies was meant to take the lead on the construction work.

District auditors say the district contracted with C & B for $1 million in repairs and ended up paying close to $2.2 million instead. Facilities and construction staff had countered that the district's agreement was with AshBritt -- for closer to $3 million -- and C & B was a subcontractor.

On Thursday, auditors presented documents showing AshBritt did not come into the picture until January 2006, only a few days before C & B finished its repairs.

Permission for AshBritt to proceed was not signed until later, in February 2007.

C & B, which is based in Texas, was not licensed to do work in Florida. The Pompano Beach-based AshBritt then billed and was paid on behalf of C & B, auditors say.

Broward wanted to reopen schools quickly. But it didn't handle finding out about C & B's missing license correctly, said Patrick Reilly, the district's chief auditor.

''Instead of saying, 'They did the work, let's pay them, let's do additional inspections,' '' the district took on AshBritt as the lead contractor -- and that company tacked on bills to pad its profit, he said.

''Luckily a lot of the things that they did, they did very well.''

Broward policies have since changed. Dozens of companies are preapproved to work after a hurricane strikes, with license, insurance and pricing information already on file.

Other issues that came up in the audit: Contractors filed invoices and charts that were not dated or time-stamped, leaving an opening for inflating numbers.

The district was overbilled for food and lodging costs for workers, with some making more than one claim a day or filing for the stipend even if, as local residents, they should not have received it.

And some of the repairs done at the time have still not been inspected, according to the report.

The district will make those inspections, the staff said in its written response to the audit Thursday. ''We are taking it very seriously,'' Superintendent Jim Notter said after the meeting, adding that he will discuss with district attorneys how to go about getting a refund for any overpayments.

An outside accounting firm will review the audit to determine whether state agencies, FEMA or the IRS should conduct further investigations, Notter said.

The audit committee, citing advice from attorneys, declined to hear from Michael Moskowitz, a lawyer for AshBritt.

After the meeting, Moskowitz said the district did not give the company a chance to present documents explaining its invoices and showing C & B as a subcontractor. He also said AshBritt's rates were comparable to those of other companies.

''In a hurricane, tornado, flood -- a natural disaster -- it's very commonplace for work to be done before documentation,'' he said. ''And they acknowledged no problem with the work.''
South Florida Sun-Sentinel


By Akilah Johnson Staff writer
July 21, 2009

Broward School Board members are finally talking about a controversial audit that says two contractors ripped off the district for more than three-quarters of a million dollars.

But they're not griping about the possibility of wasted taxpayer money. They're mad word got out when it did. Now, board members want to limit the release of district audits.

The audit in question alleges C&B Services of Texas performed unnecessary work and submitted falsified bills for repairing portable classrooms after Hurricane Wilma.

It recommends the district demand a $765,608 refund from AshBritt Inc., which later claimed it, not C&B, was the general contractor.

"The resolution is simple: do not release draft reports to the audit committee or the school board," board member Stephanie Kraft said in a six-page memo to Superintendent James Notter. "Until a report is 'complete,' meaning the audited department has had an opportunity to present its side in the report, the audit (even if marked 'draft') should not be given out to anyone."

Board member Bob Parks co-signed on Kraft's suggestion, saying in an e-mail, "I totally agree with your conclusions and recommendations... Nice work."

Kraft's July 10 memo was part of the Facilities & Construction Management department's official response submitted last Thursday to questions raised in the audit, which it calls "imbalanced and incomplete." In interviews, construction officials called the audit "slanderous."

School Board members received a draft of the audit - making it unequivocally a public record - on July 1, about a week after the district's Audit Committee demanded to see a copy.

Auditors obliged, stamping "draft" on it. It was considered preliminary because the construction department, which was being scrutinized, had not responded to the findings, which call for investigations by FEMA, the IRS and state agencies.

The audit committee is holding a special meeting on Thursday to hash out the facts. The audit will go before the School Board on Aug. 18.


Make draft audits off-limits, some School Board members say

Posted by Akilah Johnson on July 20, 2009 04:25 PM


Lobbyist Ron Book weighs in on the saga of the hurricane repair audit

Posted by Akilah Johnson on July 16, 2009 12:15 PM

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

BROWARD SCHOOLS: Construction officials: Repairs audit wrong - Contractors making repairs after Hurricane Wilma did not overcharge the school district, officials said

By Akilah Johnson Staff Writer
July 10, 2009

Auditors got it all wrong when they reported that two contractors ripped off the Broward school district while making Hurricane Wilma repairs, said officials of the district's construction department Thursday.

A draft of the audit report, sent to School Board members July 1, alleged C&B Services of Texas performed unnecessary work and submitted inflated - and falsified - bills for repairing 84 portable classrooms. It recommended the district demand a $765,608 refund from AshBritt Inc., which later claimed it, not C&B, was the general contractor.

However, Denis Herrmann, the district's director of design and construction contracts, insisted the repairs were necessary and performed at a $300,000 discount. He said the district submitted paperwork made after-the-fact - not falsified - because there was no electricity when the recovery began.

"It seems like the auditors were holding us to standards that you do under normal conditions," Herrmann said. "They are criticizing us for working under extreme conditions, and that's what I find most unfair."

His boss, Deputy Superintendent of Facilities and Construction Michael Garretson, acknowledged the district was unprepared after Wilma - forced to write agreements by hand and unable to produce contracts for two weeks. But he continued to angrily refute the audit, which earlier this week he said was filled with "errors and false accusations."

Garretson's office plans to submit an official response by July 17. The issue then will be vetted by the district's audit oversight committee before going to the School Board.

AshBritt Inc. also denied the allegations.

Chief Auditor Pat Reilly said he stands by the report, which calls for investigations by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Internal Revenue Service, as well as state authorities.

Garretson said the school district now has an emergency plan that includes 57 companies approved to work should another hurricane hit. Licenses, proof of insurance and prices are on file, he said.

According to the 48-page audit, on Nov. 2, 2005, Garretson, Herrmann and another district official met with two representatives of C&B Services and lobbyist Ron Book. The district needed to fix roofs on portable classrooms, and to clean and dry water-logged walls, books and floors so mold wouldn't grow.

Garretson ordered his staff to expedite paperwork on a $1 million purchase order so the firm could start working, the audit said. But, it said, the company inflated lodging and food costs, double-billed for numerous repairs and did unnecessary work.

A district employee refused to pay C&B after noticing the company lacked the required license and was billing at twice the normal rate, the audit said.

At that point, auditors said, AshBritt, which has the required license, asserted it was the contractor and C&B was working for it. AshBritt then submitted bills on behalf of the Texas company and was paid.

As some district employees voiced concern over possible fraud, the audit said, "it became a possibility that . . . others were trying to potentially cover it up."

"We never had any type of arraignment with C&B," Garretson said. "Where is the contract with C&B? That's the question to ask."

The audit includes a copy of a purchase order issued to C&B Services on Nov. 22, 2005, to do $1 million in repair work.

To refute allegations that contractors needlessly fixed some classrooms, Garretson and Herrmann point to Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines.

The audit said the district was charged for 17 portable classrooms but only two were serviced.

Herrmann said building inspectors did only a visual survey of the outside of the campus and determined two buildings needed repairs. The inspectors didn't have access to inside. Follow-up work orders for more than 20 rooms were submitted by maintenance workers and the safety department, Herrmann said.

Later, C&B submitted a report showing it dried out and inspected 21 rooms, he said. It charged the district an average of $342 less than other contractors to replace roofs, he added.

"The auditors ignored all of that and point only to the [building] inspectors report," Herrmann said. "To focus on one piece of paper, then say we should sue someone. That's irresponsible."

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akjohnson@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4527.

South Florida Sun-Sentinel


By Michael Mayo
July 9, 2009

Here's a lesson for the Broward school district: We live in South Florida.

South Florida is prone to hurricanes.

Hurricanes can damage many things, including schools, the district headquarters and that wonderful Florida innovation known as the port-o-classroom.

Apparently, this came as a surprise to school officials when Hurricane Wilma blew through in October 2005.

So instead of having a repair plan spelled out, the district was in full scramble mode in the chaotic days after Wilma.

"We got complacent," said School Board member Stephanie Kraft.

In that sense, the district was no better than most hapless homeowners after the storm: at the mercy of any contractor we could find, potential marks for opportunists or gougers.

The preliminary version of a scathing internal audit says the school district got soaked for $765,608 in inflated bills and unnecessary work by two firms hired to fix portable classrooms.

Pompano Beach-based AshBritt denies the allegations. The other firm, C&B Services of Texas, has been folded into another company.

The report calls for follow-up investigations by federal and state authorities, saying "there were clear signs of coercion and falsified documentation to facilitate approvals" and payments.

Kraft said whatever the outcome, the district is better prepared for the next storm. She said the School Board has approved contingency contracts for emergencies.

The deputy superintendent for construction and buildings management, Michael Garretson, has angrily disputed the audit. In an e-mail this week, he said the report was tantamount to "slander." He also wrote that the auditors' actions left him "totally disgusted."

Said chief auditor Patrick Reilly: "It would be inappropriate for me to comment on his statements at this time."

In an e-mail Wednesday, Denis Herrmann, a director under Garretson, said the "audit findings are not based on the entirety of the documentation and testimony provided." He said auditors reached an "illogical conclusion" when alluding to a potential cover-up.

Herrmann said it's unclear whether the district should seek a refund for overbilling, saying that "the prices paid to AshBritt were comparable to prices paid for similar work at that time in this market."

Garretson's office said it would give a detailed response to auditors by July 17. The matter will go to the district's audit committee July 23 and then to the School Board.

AshBritt and C&B had something in common: Both were represented by local mega-lobbyist Ron Book. Book is a campaign contributor to many School Board members.

The School Board didn't have anything to do with the initial awarding of $1 million worth of repair work to C&B Services. That came after Book and company officials met with Garretson in the frenzied weeks after the storm.

At the time, the district's downtown "Crystal Palace" headquarters was heavily damaged and officials were scurrying to get schools reopened.

"I don't think it's necessarily wrong that [Garretson] made the decision he did," said Kraft. "But I'm glad the auditors are looking at it. If there's a problem, we'll take action."

After staff raised questions about C&B's billing and licensing, auditors say the work was eventually folded into a $3.1 million purchase order with AshBritt.

It's not unusual for auditors to find billing discrepancies and allege overcharging by contractors. But this seems different, with the audit hinting at fraud and possible criminality.

Will School Board members greet it with a yawn or outrage?

Michael Mayo can be reached at mmayo@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4508.

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South Florida Sun-Sentinel


By Akilah Johnson Staff Writer
July 8, 2009

Broward School Board members said Tuesday that it's too soon to respond to auditors' findings that two contractors ripped off the district for more than three-quarters of a million dollars after Hurricane Wilma.

Board members on July 1 were e-mailed a draft of the findings, which said the contractors performed unnecessary work and submitted inflated - and falsified - bills for repairing 84 portable classrooms. The draft, which will be finalized next week, also says some district employees voiced concern over possible fraud and "it became a possibility that...others were trying to potentially cover it up."

"It would be totally premature" to comment on the findings, said board member Stephanie Kraft. "Once we get a total and complete report, then we'll look at it."

The district auditors' report focused on invoices submitted by AshBritt Inc., a national disaster recovery company based in Pompano Beach, and C&B Services, a Texas-based company. District auditors say the Texas company was unlicensed to work in Florida.

Randy Perkins, CEO of AshBritt, said the Texas company was working for him and flatly denied the audit's allegations.

The auditors' draft calls for investigations by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Internal Revenue Service, as well as state authorities. It also recommends the district demand a $765,608 refund from AshBritt.

Mike Garretson, the district's deputy superintendent for facilities and construction management, has until July 17 to respond to the questions raised in the audit, which he says has "many errors and missing pieces."

A week later, the report will be vetted by the Audit Committee, which is made up of regular citizens who review district audits.

"If there's any wrongdoing, we'll get to the bottom of it." said board member Beverly Gallagher.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akjohnson@sun-sentinel.com or 954-356-4527.

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South Florida Sun-Sentinel


By Akilah Johnson and Paula McMahon Staff Writers
Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

Auditors say the Broward school district was ripped off to the tune of more than three-quarters of a million dollars by two contractors who performed unnecessary work or submitted inflated bills for repairs made to portable classrooms damaged by Hurricane Wilma.

The district auditors' report, which will be finalized next week, calls for investigations by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Internal Revenue Service, as well as state authorities.

The Sun Sentinel obtained a copy of the auditors' draft report, which also recommends the district demand a $765,608 refund from AshBritt Inc., a national disaster recovery company based in Pompano Beach, and one of the contractors scrutinized.

"There were clear signs of coercion and falsified documentation to facilitate the approvals and ultimately the recommendation to process payments to AshBritt, Inc.," auditors say in the 48-page report. "Additionally, we believe the final documents submitted for payment were falsified and inflated."

Mike Garretson, the district's deputy superintendent for facilities and construction management, said in an e-mail to his boss Monday the auditors' actions had left him "totally disgusted." He asked to meet with Superintendent James Notter, as well as Chief Auditor Patrick Reilly, "to discuss the accusations and innuendo contained in the report that amount to slander."

In a separate e-mail to the Sun Sentinel, Garretson said his department plans to present its response to auditors next week, adding that "there are so many errors and missing pieces in their audit that it is taking a lot of research."

Randy Perkins, CEO of AshBritt, flatly denied the audit's allegations.

"If anyone can show me where I did anything that was unscrupulous, that was remotely unprofessional in the way I conducted business... I will absolutely refund the school board their money," Perkins said in an interview. "I'll take the check to them myself."

The auditors' report says that after Hurricane Wilma swept across Broward County on Oct. 24, 2005, the school district hired C&B Services, a Texas-based contractor, to repair 84 portable classrooms, but the company over-billed by inflating lodging and food costs, double-billing for numerous repairs as well as doing unnecessary work.

The auditors said a district employee refused to pay C&B after noticing that the company lacked the required license and was billing at twice the normal rate.

At that point, the auditors said, AshBritt, which has the required license, asserted that it was the actual contractor, and that C&B was working for it. AshBritt then submitted bills on behalf of the Texas company and was ultimately paid.

Perkins, the AshBritt CEO, said C&B was licensed to do the work it performed and that it was also covered by AshBritt's general contractor license. According to Perkins, his own company has done an estimated $1.5 billion worth of disaster recovery and management work nationwide in the past 10 years.

According to the audit, less than two weeks after Wilma, on Nov. 2, 2005, Garretson met with two representatives of C&B Services, two other school district officials and lobbyist Ron Book. Throughout the district, roofs on portable classrooms damaged by the storm needed to be repaired or replaced. Water-logged walls, books and floors needed to cleaned and dried so mold wouldn't grow.

Garretson ordered his staff to expedite paperwork on a $1 million purchase order so the Texas company could start working to repair the classrooms, the audit said.

After C&B started sending its bills, a district employee sent an e-mail to supervisors telling them that the district was being charged at twice the industry norm for replacing the roofs, the auditors said. Staff members later sounded the alarm over the company's lack of a license.

As some employees of the Broward school district were voicing concern over possible fraud, the auditors said, "it became a possibility that... others were trying to potentially cover it up."

In the interview, Perkins of AshBritt said it was his business that contacted the school district first, and that it brought in the Texas company later. He said he may have had Book contact the school district, but that he could not remember "how it went down." Book could not be reached to comment.

According to the auditors, on Jan. 5, 2006, AshBritt received a purchase order from the district to do $3.1 million in Wilma-related work. By then, C&B Services was 11 days away from completing its job.

Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

Akilah Johnson can be reached at akjohnson@sunsentinel.com or 954-356-4527.

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#HOLLYWOODFL based photographer and entrepreneur Esther Chuang with Hollywood Mayor-elect Josh Levy

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