Broward Schools are struggling to make things right. Sometimes you may try too hard. This time the district is determined to avoid corruption or even the appearance of it. The voters have told the district to spend money and improve the schools, and getting that to happen is harder than it seems. I am interested in how public school districts are trying to meet the challenges they confront. I hope you are too. Read Margery’s account of a good problem that still makes the news.
By Margery Marcus, LWV Broward
Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie has been on the hot seat lately over what has been perceived as the District’s delays in spending the first round of the $800 million bond money approved by voters last November. Under attack this month by citizens groups and the media, the Superintendent and Donna Korn, School Board Chair, jointly published an open letter in the Sun-Sentinel defending the timeline for spending the money.
What the public perceives as delays, they explained, is actually the phasing in of the process. After getting voter approval in November, the bonds were not validated until March, the letter explains. The mega program has grown even larger – to $984 million – with the addition of millions more in capital funds. “It is as important to do this work in the right way, as it is to do it quickly,” the letter reads (Sun-Sentinel August 2014).
Trust issues have plagued Broward schools for decades, well before Runcie’s time. A bond issue approved by voters 28 years ago resulted in nasty haggling between supporters of spending it to repair older, poorer schools in the eastern part of the county and building new ones in the western, wealthier part of Broward.
Smarting from broken promises, voters rejected a one-cent sales increase to help schools in 1995. Audits in the 1990s, as well as a grand jury report of corruption in the District’s construction program in 2011, did little to build voters’ trust. In highly publicized cases, two School Board members were arrested and convicted of having personally benefitted from district construction contracts (Sun-Sentinel October 2014).
Runcie’s appointment as Superintendent in 2011 ushered in renewed trust in the system ; 74 percent of voters approved the $800 million bond issue last fall, agreeing to a property tax increase of $50 for houses valued at $225,000 or more. Interestingly, that increase was just reduced to $30 by a state mandate to the District to lower its tax rate.
Now trust is back in the news again with unmet deadlines for the bond projects dubbed the SMART program for “Safety, Music, Arts, Renovations & Technology.” Construction projects slated to begin in June have not started, and several School Board members have voiced annoyance publicly about the delays.
One major delay has been in the hiring of a program management company to oversee the projects. One company about to be hired in March was removed from consideration for violating the District’s “cone of silence” policy prohibiting contractors from coming into to contact with school officials during the bidding process. The District then had to begin the selection process anew. Adhering to this policy is a welcome change, at least, from past administrations in which facilities and construction scandals were headlined nearly every day.
Meanwhile, school starts for students here on Monday and very few of them will see any bond projects in the works.