The Broward School Board's March 2, 2011 Cover Letter to Florida Dept. of Education Secretary Eric J. Smith, accompanying the response below:
The Broward School Board's March 2, 2011 "Plan of Action to Address the Findings and Recommendations of the Grand Jury":
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
South Florida Schools blog
State to Broward Schools: Plan to restore trust isn't good enough
By Cara Fitzpatrick
March 11, 2011 11:48 AM
Education Commissioner Eric Smith told the Broward County School District that its plan to "restore the public's trust" after a recent grand jury report isn't good enough.
In a letter sent to the district Thursday, Smith said he plans to send the state Department of Education's Inspector General to the district to review records, interview staff, and help him decide whether to launch a full-fledged investigation.
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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
No indictments from grand jury probe of Broward schools, so now what?
By Megan O'Matz, Sun Sentinel
7:37 PM EST, March 7, 2011
Two law enforcement agencies are looking at potential charges involving Broward Schools officials, though their focus is likely not the misdeeds cited by a recent grand jury report that was stingingly critical of the district.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement's investigation of the Broward Schools is still "active," said agency spokesman Keith Kamet. He declined to provide further information.
And the Broward State Attorney's Office is "continually looking at possible School Board cases," spokesman Ron Ishoy said. The office currently is prosecuting former School Board member Stephanie Kraft on bribery charges. She has pleaded not guilty.
"We interacted with the statewide grand jury staff throughout their investigation, we spoke with them after their report was issued, and we will continue working with them going forward," Ishoy said.
The grand jury's 51-page report, released Feb. 18, slammed the School Board for "gross mismanagement and apparent ineptitude," saying the litany of problems was so great it could only be explained by "corruption of our officials by contractors, vendors and their lobbyists."
Yet the grand jury's year-long investigation did not result in criminal charges. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who created the panel, had said it would have the authority to "root out public corruption" and bring indictments.
But the grand jury was led by the Florida Attorney General's Office of Statewide Prosecution and could only indict if the suspected criminal activity crossed county lines.
The grand jury could refer narrower matters to local authorities to pursue, but the Attorney General's office informed the Sun Sentinel on Feb. 21 that the panel made no such referrals. The grand jury's report landed like a grenade, leaving many people stunned and outraged. Yet for all its strong verbiage, some veteran prosecutors and defense lawyers said its findings likely will not lead to future criminal charges.
Noted Broward defense attorney David Bogenschutz said prosecutors are unlikely to file charges in areas where the grand jury looked at suspicious conduct but elected not to act. That's because it would probably be harder to win a conviction in open court than an indictment from a grand jury meeting in secret, Bogenschutz said.
"If you can't convince 18 people when you're in there alone [as a prosecutor] how are you going to with a judge and defense attorney?" Bogenschutz said.
In fact, in the view of one former federal prosecutor, the mere fact that the grand jury mentioned certain acts of alleged official misconduct is a clue that they are not subjects of an ongoing criminal probe by law enforcement. According to Bruce Reinhart, of West Palm Beach, prosecutors don't want outside groups getting involved in taking testimony or gathering evidence on acts they have targeted because that could jeopardize their case.
"If I'm the FBI or BSO [Broward Sheriff's Office] and I've got a serious investigation of criminal conduct, I'm not going to let the grand jury have it, to the extent I can," Reinhart said.
The grand jury did not address several well-publicized controversies involving the school district.
Those issues include a dispute over billings by AshBritt, a Pompano Beach debris-removal company that district auditors found "grossly overcharged" for Hurricane Wilma repairs, and the $47 million auditors said the district overpaid for 15 new elementary school cafeterias.
Overall, the grand jury lambasted the School Board for pushing unnecessary building projects against staff advice, handpicking building contractors, hiding big-ticket items on a "consent agenda" with no public debate, failing to collect financial penalties from builders for projects that come in late, using untrained inspectors, and opening new schools without fixing safety problems.
For a grand jury to indict, it must have "probable cause" that a crime has occurred. State prosecutors are supposed to proceed with a "good faith belief" that they can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt — and win a conviction from a jury, said Jennifer Krell Davis, press secretary for the state Attorney General's Office. That is a tougher standard.
To secure a conviction for corruption, prosecutors usually want evidence that the official in question received some compensation — such as money or home improvements or trips — in return for their vote or influence. That clear proof of corruption was apparently not established by the grand jury.
In one case enumerated in its report, an unidentified School Board member arranged for a California consultant who socialized with her and her lobbyist husband to secure a school district leadership training contract, paying him $325 an hour and his wife $160 an hour to take notes.
The board member did not disclose the social relationship with her family or abstain from voting, but the grand jury did not indicate that it found any money changed hands between the consultant and the board member.
In another example of questionable spending, an unnamed board member was criticized by the grand jury for pushing a $25 million new Hollywood elementary school that was not supported by plunging enrollment numbers. Board member Jennifer Gottlieb, whose son attends Beachside Montessori Village, has acknowledged championing the new school, saying it's a successful academic program.
The report makes no suggestion that the board member received any payment for advancing the building of the school, which the grand jury called her "pet project."
The grand jury said much of what it learned regarding the Broward school system appeared to fit the definition of corruption "as understood by regular citizens." But it said those acts could escape criminal punishment because of "weaknesses in state law."
In a prior interim report, released in December, the grand jury described those deficiencies in the justice system, saying some reprehensible acts by public officials are not crimes under Florida law, that corruption cases are often difficult to prove given current legal definitions, that punishments are too lenient and that plea deals are common.
It cited one "appalling loophole" in state law — Florida's definition of "public servant" is narrow, allowing employees of certain private companies contracted to do government work to avoid prosecution for crimes such as bribery or unlawful compensation.
According to the report, an unidentified veteran prosecutor told the grand jury that his office receives many complaints alleging bid tampering but rarely prosecutes them because Florida law is toothless. Federal laws are stronger, and bid rigging is a common offense charged by the U.S. Department of Justice.
In 2009, the FBI took down Broward School Board member Beverly Gallagher in a sting operation that caught her taking cash in exchange for her promises to help rig the awarding of construction contracts. She is now serving a three-year prison term.
Famously tight-lipped, the FBI won't say if its probe of Broward Schools officials and operations is ongoing. The FBI "can't confirm or deny any investigation," said agency spokesman Michael Leverock.
Staff writer Paula McMahon contributed to this report.
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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Broward Schools propose training, ethics to combat problems listed in grand jury report
By Cara Fitzpatrick and Megan O'Matz, Sun Sentinel
11:07 AM EST, March 3, 2011
To combat the pervasive "gross mismanagement and apparent ineptitude" identified in a recent grand jury report, the Broward County School Board proposes to increase training, create an ethics policy for board members, improve record-keeping, and discuss all construction and facilities items in public.
Those recommendations and others were included in a 20-page summary sent late Wednesday to the state Department of Education, along with a cover letter in which board members promised to take "corrective action" and "restore the public's trust."
The summary, which included 250 exhibits, packed no major punches and included few surprises. The word "training" is mentioned more than 60 times in the summary, and no major leadership or organizational changes are proposed. Superintendent Jim Notter has resisted calls for his resignation.
But Notter said Wednesday that the report establishes the "rules of the game." Board members and employees will receive training, and policy changes will be proposed so that areas identified in the grand jury report as lax are "more tightly controlled," he said.
Building and construction departments in particular could see more stringent enforcement of district policies and procedures for better record-keeping. Board members should be able to see certificates of occupancy and other paperwork when they vote on agenda items, he said.
According to the School Board's report, members will consider a draft ethics code at their meeting next week. They also will have a workshop no later than April 29 to publicly discuss how the district will respond to the grand jury findings, something they haven't done yet.
To protect whistleblowers, Notter will send a memo this week to employees to remind them of the district's anti-bullying policy, which was approved in 2008. To promote better relationships between the district's building department and its construction management division, a meeting will be held to "emphasize the need to work more cooperatively," the report said.
The grand jury found such "malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance" that it could only be explained by "corruption of our officials." It said the board has demonstrated an appalling lack of both leadership and awareness, and it bashed Notter for letting board members meddle in the operation of the district.
Notter said he and board members will participate in a 22-hour master board training course in September. He acknowledged Wednesday that training can only do so much, and said when it comes to district staff, reorganization is "ultimately" an option.
"Those that don't want to abide by the rules have to work somewhere else," he said.
State Education Commissioner Eric Smith will use the district's response to decide whether his department's Office of Inspector General should conduct its own investigation into the grand jury's findings. The district's report was due Wednesday. The district released it on its website just before 5:30 p.m.
It wasn't clear Wednesday when Smith would make a decision or what consequences could come from an Inspector General investigation. A department spokesman confirmed that the report had been received and said it was being reviewed.
Notter also has promised to provide a more detailed response to the grand jury report within 30 to 45 days of its Feb. 18 release.
On Tuesday, board members seemed all-too-aware of the grand jury report as they pulled facilities and construction items from the consent agenda. Robin Bartleman told staff members that she needed to have all necessary paperwork before she could approve anything, and said she "can't be involved in the day-to-day operations of the district."
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Broward School Board responds to grand jury complaint
By Carli Teproff
March 2, 2011
Saying it took a state grand jury reprimand “very seriously,’’ the Broward School Board sent a letter Tuesday to the Florida Department of Education outlining the steps it has taken to address allegations of wasteful spending and corruption.
“I assure you , the School Board, Superintendent of Schools, and the District’s administration take the findings and recommendations of the Grand Jury very seriously and will take corrective action as appropriate to address the issues and restore the public’s trust in Broward County Public Schools,’’ School Board Chair Benjamin Williams wrote.
Last month, a Florida Grand Jury released a scathing report that criticized the district for spending money on unneeded schools, chided the board members for meddling in day-to-day issues and singled out Superintendent Jim Notter as not being a strong enough leader. It also reprimanded the board for allowing schools to open before they were complete and called district paperwork lax.
The report went so far as to say if the state constitution allowed it to, the grand jury would recommend abolishing the School Board.
On Feb. 22, the state Department of Education got involved, requesting the district to write up a plan detailing how it would address the problems. The deadline was Wednesday.
“The plan of action should include specific steps taken or planned by the District School Board to correct each of the Findings and Recommendations,’’ Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith wrote.
In his response to Smith, Williams explained the district needed more time to fully analyze the problems, but had already initiated some changes.
• Board members are no longer allowed to sit on committees that select contractors.
• The board will no longer be able to reduce the amount of money it is withholding from a contractor pending completion of a project without public comment. State law says government agencies can retain more than 10 percent of a contract amount until up to 50 percent of a project’s completion, and allows for withholding 5 percent after that.
• Schools will no longer be issued temporary certificates of occupancy.
• Following the arrest and conviction of former board member Beverly Gallagher on bribery charges, the district started the process of developing an ethics code. The board will discuss the proposed code by the end of March.
In the letter, Smith said he needed the response in order to decide if the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General should begin its own investigation into the district. The law allows him to request an investigation if the board is “unwilling or unable to address substantiated allegations made by any person relating to waste, fraud or financial mismanagement within the school districts.’’
The district’s response included a 20-page plan of action compiled by district staff. It addressed the 20 recommendations from the grand jury – including reducing the number of board members from nine to five and having an elected superintendent.
Superintendent Notter said he and staff have worked around the clock to pull documents and give examples of what has changed.
“We have done a huge chunk of what we have to do,’’ Notter said. “But there is still a lot left to do.’’
Notter promised he will have a complete review of the grand jury report within 45 days. “It takes time to go through everything we have to go through to give a proper response,’’ he said.
The district also promised it would have a new “project closeout procedure plan’’ by March 25, which would detail the procedures for using occupancy certificates.
Although acknowledging students were brought to schools where construction projects were not completed, the district said the facilities were safe.
“The District contends all life safety items were addressed prior to the issuance of a [Temporary Certificate of Occupancy] or appropriate actions were taken to allow safe occupancy.’’
The letter also said the board will discuss the district’s retainage policy, which dictates how much money it can withhold from a contractor until unresolved problems are solved, at its March 29 workshop.
The board has also agreed to undergo training to address the grand jury’s concerns about in-fighting and meddling.
And the board said it will discuss reducing the number of board members and having an elected superintendent – both of which will have to go to a voter referendum – by April 29.
“The board gave me clear direction to accelerate the time lines,’’ Notter said.