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BrowardPalmBeach New Times
Grand Jury Report: School Board Blew Hundreds of Millions of Taxpayers Dollars While In Lobbyists' Pocket By Bob Norman,
Sat., Feb. 19 2011 @ 6:36AM
Well, it's finally official.
The Broward County School Board wasted hundreds of millions of your dollars while doing the bidding of a select group of contractors and lobbyists. You've been reading about that here for the past five years. Now the statewide grand jury has found the same thing.
The final grand jury report was released last night (yes, that means they aren't going to issue indictments). To get an idea of its tone, understand that it stated flatly that were it not for a constitutional mandate to have a school board "our first and foremost recommendation would have been to abolish the Broward County School Board altogether."
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BrowardPalmBeach New Times
Grand Jury Slams Jennifer Gottlieb's "Beachside Boondoggle"
By Bob Norman,
Sun., Feb. 20 2011 @ 8:38AM
The Sun-Sentinel obtained some comments from school boarder defending themselves from the findings of the statewide grand jury.
Said Broward Schools Supt. Jim Notter: "I've built a 37-year career by being passionate about digging through the data, emphasizing accountability and getting things done right."
Sure. Except when he was willfully violating state law to allow the lobbyist and contractors to take over the school district and waste hundreds of millions in taxpayers' money.
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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Notter vows to stay as superintendent of Broward schools
Promises to address grand jury findings
By Megan O'Matz and Cara Fitzpatrick, Sun Sentinel
February 23, 2011
Broward Schools Superintendent Jim Notter vowed Tuesday to stay on the job despite being bashed in a grand jury report for allowing a self-serving School Board to use the district as a multi-billion dollar piggy bank for friends and cronies.
"I have no plans to resign or retire at this point in time," said Notter, who is in his fifth year as head of Broward Schools and who earns about $300,000 a year. However, he said he takes responsibility for the report's "devastating" findings and promised to regain the public's trust in him and the Board.
Notter was flanked by a majority of the Board at the hastily called news conference. "Yes, we do have confidence in the superintendent," said chairman Benjamin J. Williams, a board member since 2000.
Notter's comments followed Friday's release of the statewide grand jury report, which accused the School Board and senior management of "malfeasance." It concluded the level of mismanagement and ineptitude was so great it could only be attributed to widespread corruption.
The report portrayed a district run by individuals who directed contracts to friends, pushed unnecessary building projects, insisted on costly changes to construction projects, opened new schools before all safety measures were addressed, and paid contractors in full despite unfinished items.
The grand jury did not indict anyone, however, citing "weaknesses" in state law that make prosecution difficult and statutes that do not cover certain behavior that likely should be deemed criminal.
Notter said he and his staff will "go through this report point by point," and produce a detailed response to the public within 30 to 45 days.
Of the problems, he said: "We will fix it."
The grand jury took a year to investigate the district, prompted by the September 2009 arrest of then School Board member Beverly Gallagher for bribery. She was later convicted. Another one-time board member, Stephanie Kraft, has since been charged with bribery and is awaiting trial. She's pleaded not guilty.
In the past year, Notter said, the school system has implemented several reforms, some of which the grand jury also recommends.
Board members no longer sit on committees that select insurance companies, banks, construction firms and architects to do business with the district. A lobbyist registration policy was strengthened to include penalties. Ethics training was stepped up. And contractors are not given final payments until all inspections are complete and safety items addressed.
One of the grand jury's chief concerns was that schools were open with only "temporary" occupancy permits, signifying not all fire safety, plumbing, electrical and design items were addressed. Rather than fix the issues within the required 90-days, the district let matters rest for months and even years.
What's more, record-keeping was so poor that the grand jury said the number of projects still with temporary permits, or no occupancy documents, could be as high as 200, a figure it found "appalling."
Notter was at a loss to say how many school buildings still have unaddressed safety issues but promised to find the answers.
Outside of the news conference, the School Board carried on with its normal business during a day-long workshop, holding mannerly discussions on class size, building accessibility and budgets.
As customary at workshops, it did not take public comment.
The panel did, however, debate provisions of a proposed ethics policy that would restrict board members from accepting gifts over $50; bar them from serving on committees that select contractors and insurance providers; and force them to disclose outside work such as consulting agreements.
It would also require the district to maintain a record of each lobbyist visit to board members and would compel members to report each time they solicited funds for charities.
While the School Board insisted it wanted a strong ethics policy in place quickly, it sent the proposal back to staff for further revisions.
"Let's make it crystal clear to everybody so I don't have to ask my secretary what is proper and what is not," board member Maureen Dinnen said.
Of particular concern was a requirement that board members disclose when they solicit donations for charity. A few said they found it unnecessarily burdensome to have to report on their "mommy" activities such as raising money for their children's rugby teams or Girl Scout troops.
"I sold thousands of boxes of cookies," said Girl Scout troop leader and School Board member Robin Bartleman. "How can you make it so it's doable for us?"
During a break at Tuesday's workshop, School Board member Jennifer Gottlieb was mobbed by reporters questioning her involvement in the construction of Hollywood's Beachside Montessori school. The grand jury called it a $25 million "boondoggle," exemplifying "everything that is wrong with the Board and the District."
Shrinking enrollment did not justify building the new K-8 school there, the grand jury said, but the district pressed on, in part because it was Gottlieb's "baby." The report slammed the Board and administrators for allowing Gottlieb to "unilaterally shove through a pet project." Gottlieb's son attends the school.
On Tuesday, Gottlieb said plans for the school were under way before she was elected in 2006 and she had no hand in choosing the site or the contractor. She did, however, advocate it being switched from a regular curriculum to a Montessori approach, in which children learn at their own pace.
"I pushed for a program that was successful," Gottlieb said of the curriculum.
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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Can Broward School Board, Notter make things right?
Public needs to demand answers, accountability
Michael Mayo Sun Sentinel Columnist
7:34 PM EST, February 23, 2011
Broward Schools Superintendent Jim Notter calls himself "a data nut." He also calls himself "a form follows function nut," whatever that means.
So here was my data question to him after a scathing grand jury report: How many Broward schools are still operating with "temporary" certificates of occupancy, meaning they might not have passed final safety inspections?
"I do not have that data at this time," the Data Nut said at a Tuesday news conference.
Notter said the district has rehired a consultant to sort it out.
"I understand that some parents might have concerns," Notter said. "I need to rebuild confidence."
It's more than a little disconcerting that the country's sixth-largest school district is so scattershot it doesn't have centralized building records. Especially with the umpteenth grand jury lambasting the district for its odd construction and inspection practices.
So maybe it's time for Notter to rebrand himself.
Maybe he should call himself a Reform Follows Dysfunction Nut.
That is, if Notter gets the chance at more reforms after another black eye for the school district.
Notter was in full damage-control mode on Tuesday, when he tried to stanch the wounds from the grand jury report.
He said he takes full responsibility, but won't step down. He said the district will have a point-by-point response … in 30-45 days (the better to let the hubbub die out?). He pointed to his post-Hurricane Wilma stewardship, even though a federal audit found the district didn't properly document how it spent millions in emergency grants.
Notter had eight of nine School Board members flank him in an apparent show of solidarity — new member Laurie Rich Levinson skipped out — but it's hard to say if he has long-term support.
"We need to give him the opportunity to respond," Levinson told me Wednesday. "But we do need to talk about a lot of things. There's some change that needs to be made internally, obviously … it's the staff in general, senior management people who have been here a long time."
Notter, a longtime district administrator, is in his fifth year as superintendent. That's about the time when many leaders reach their expiration date. Especially those who serve elected school boards looking for easy scapegoats during tough times.
Notter says he's not going anywhere. He vowed to stay and fix things.
The question is, can he be trusted to fix things?
Then again, can the School Board that would pick his successor be trusted either?
Four members are recent arrivals elected in November, but five are holdovers who collectively got scorched by the grand jury. When they weren't being called corrupt or meddlesome, they were being labeled wasteful and incompetent.
So who's going to save students, parents and taxpayers from this lot?
It's up to us. It's time to start caring, time to demand better answers and accountability.
Next Tuesday's regular board meeting, where public comment will be allowed, will be a good start.
The grand jury chided the School Board for allowing too many big decisions involving big bucks to be decided without proper public input, often stashing them in the "consent agenda" where items are voted upon in one fell swoop.
This Tuesday's all-day board workshop was a weird exercise in denial. After the grand jury report, you'd expect some outrage or at least some grandstanding by new board members.
But things were business as usual, and oh so polite. Except for Levinson, board members sat like willing movie extras when it came time for Notter's news conference.
New board member Dave Thomas had made comments to the Sun-Sentinel about a no-confidence vote, but it didn't happen. At the workshop, Thomas seemed more concerned about ditching a proposed tough new ethics policy.
Board members shrilly twisted the guidelines, making it seem as if harmless fundraising activities like selling Girl Scout cookies would get them in trouble. (All they would have to do under the proposed new rules is declare their activities on a form, and not pressure anyone into donating because of their position).
They'll continue working on the policy.
How tone-deaf can they be?
It's time for some outside voices to start chiming in. If you care about our schools and our kids' education, show up for the next School Board meeting Tuesday at 9:45 a.m., at district headquarters, 600 SE Third Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
Otherwise expect the same old sad song to play on.
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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Beachside Montessori expense seemed right at the time, Notter says
By Rafael A. Olmeda, Sun Sentinel
8:51 PM EST, February 25, 2011
The $25 million decision to construct a Montessori magnet school in Hollywood was easier to support before the school was built than it has been to defend since, Broward Schools Superintendent Jim Notter said Friday.
He said he stands by the decision, but in the wake of last week's blistering statewide grand jury report criticizing district leadership, he acknowledged it's a tougher sell in 2011 than it was in 2008.
"At the time, we felt it was an appropriate expense," he said. "In retrospect, could we have done things differently? That's always a possibility."
The district is still compiling its formal response to the grand jury report, with the Florida Department of Education expecting answers next week.
The report faults district leadership for failing to stop the construction of Beachside Montessori Village after changing enrollment figures made it clear the neighborhood didn't need a new school.
The grand jury called it "a microcosm of everything that's wrong with the board and district."
School Board member Jennifer Gottlieb, whose son attends the Hollywood magnet school, was portrayed, but not named, in the report as a meddling influence.
She continued to insist this week she did nothing improper.
"If the school were empty and we had to hold enrollment drives to get people to apply, I could understand the criticism," she said.
The Broward State Attorney's Office is reviewing the 51-page report, including the six pages that deal with Montessori, to determine whether legal action will need to be taken.
By a number of standards, Gottlieb said, the magnet school is a success.
Still in its first year, it has a large and active parent teacher association, has conducted tours attended by 150 to 200 families interested in enrolling their children next year, and logged 700 applications last year in the first week they became available, Gottlieb said.
But critics have pointed to inequities in the school's population, including a high percentage of non-Hispanic whites (65 percent, compared to 30 percent in the district) and, according to Notter, a relatively low percentage of students on free and reduced lunch programs.
Admission was based in part on a random lottery, with slots set aside for children transferring from Virginia Shuman Young Elementary school in Fort Lauderdale, another Montessori school.
Among those students were the children of Gottlieb and Hollywood Mayor Peter Bober. The school also gives preference to students enrolled in Montessori's pre-k programs, which cost $135 a week.
The grand jury report focused on the story behind the school's construction, steering clear of criticizing the school itself.
"…After 2006, Beachside became a particular board member's 'baby,'" the report states. "…It is well known to virtually all District employees that most, if not all, Board members have pet projects that it's best not to interfere with, no matter how wasteful or unjustifiable the project may appear to be."
Gottlieb challenged the report's characterization of her involvement.
"I did not 'meddle' in this project at all," she said. "The idea to build it was made before I was elected.''
She also said she was not responsible for making Beachside a K-8 school, a change from the original elementary school plan that necessitated delays and design changes and drove up the cost, according to the report.
Specific figures weren't given.
When the new school building wasn't ready for the start of the 2010-11 school year, the district housed the Beachside Montessori magnet program at nearby Bethune Elementary and Attucks Middle schools.
"That proved you could have moved a Montessori school into the existing facilities without having to construct a new building," said Cliff Germano, secretary of the North Central Hollywood Civic Association.
When the new school was conceived, the neighborhood schools were overcrowded.
"It was supposed to benefit the local community," Germano said. "But by the time the board got ready to build the school, enrollment had dropped. Now the nearest schools were under capacity. But the board decided they were going to build it anyway."
That was against the wishes of then-Deputy Superintendent Michael Garretson, who tried to have the plug pulled on the project in 2008 only to run afoul of Gottlieb, according to the report.
She "stated emphatically that the school would be built and it would be built with that contractor," the report states.
Gottlieb acknowledges continuing to support the school and Notter defended her role.
"She never did anything inappropriate to influence or advocate for any decision that was not in the best interest of the children in the district," he said.
Gottlieb said the district had already purchased the land, exercising eminent domain to buy and demolish homes and duplexes [at a cost of $6 million, according to the report]. In that light, it made sense to change the plan from a neighborhood school to a magnet that would draw students from the southern half of the county, she said.
With a son in Fort Lauderdale's Virginia Shuman Young Montessori school, Gottlieb was familiar with the program and committed to replicating it elsewhere in Broward. The new school seemed an ideal site, she said.
But critics said she stood to benefit personally because students from Shuman Young who lived south of Interstate 595 would be automatically accepted into Beachside Montessori. Gottlieb's family lives in Hollywood.
Beachside Parent Teacher Association President Stephanie Sardelli said she would have brought her children to any Montessori school, whether at a new building, out in the western part of the county, or at Bethune and Attucks.
"I was happy at Bethune and Attucks," she said. "I don't think it matters where the program is located. It's a terrific educational model that deserved to be duplicated."
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Beachside Montessori Village 2230 Lincoln Street, Hollywood, FL 33020