Florida’s 19th Grand Jury on Public Corruption issued its final report late last week, slamming the Broward County School Board in a 51-page report detailing the “gross mismanagement and apparent ineptitude” of board members who squandered millions of taxpayer dollars in the nation’s sixth largest school district.

The report opens by lamenting that the sheer number of individuals involved, both within the school board as well as the senior management of the district itself, is “so overwhelming that we cannot imagine any level of incompetence that would explain what we have seen. 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 authors note that their findings of both corruption and reckless spending are in line with those of two previous grand juries — in 1997 the school board was criticized for how it handled mold and mildew in schools, while a 2002 report rebuked the board for how it handled school building safety. They write therefore that, despite their lack of authority under the Florida Constitution, “our first and foremost recommendation would have been to abolish the Broward County School Board altogether.”

The report goes on to condemn the board for “an appalling lack of both leadership and awareness. Rather than focusing on the big picture and looking to the challenges of the future, they have mired themselves in the day to day running of the District, a task for which they are singularly unqualified”:

Some of the consequences of allowing themselves to be mired in the micro-managing of the District are their complete failure to focus on the big picture and their lack of awareness of critical issues facing the District.

The Board has authorized the spending of billions over the last 10 years and has saddled Broward taxpayers with $2 billion in long term debt, and yet we have thousands of empty seats at under enrolled schools in the eastern portion of the county and critically overcrowded schools in the western part of the county and no concrete plans to address the problem. We find that the current situation is a direct result of the Board’s lack of vision, foresight, planning and leadership as well as a deliberate attempt to withhold information in order to keep building unnecessary space.

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.

The report concludes:

The corruptive influence here is most often campaign contributions from individuals with a financial stake in how Board members vote. Long ago the Board should have recognized the risk that putting themselves in the center of handing out hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars would inevitably drawn attention and undue influence from moneyed interests. They should have taken steps to insulate themselves from this influence by delegating to professionals in the District things like contractor selection and bid processes and simply have adopted a watchdog role. Instead they drew closer to it and fiercely protected their role. Only now, years late and with pressure from all sides, have they begun to take steps to resolve this and other issues. Unfortunately based on the history of this Board as an institution, we have no confidence in their ability to make meaningful changes and to adhere to them. The solutions we see, at least short term, are to remove as much power and influence from the Board as possible and to have an independent outside authority monitor their dealings closely.

John Ristow of the Broward Teachers Union told WSVN News, “The reality is that hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars are already gone. Ultimately, someone has to be held accountable for this, and the superintendent has repeatedly made excuse after excuse, whether it’s a lack of state funding, even though he has proven to mismanage the money he’s received.”

Some are criticizing the Grand Jury’s report, pointing out that while it is scathing in its critique, it stops short of naming the individuals guilty of nurturing the culture of corruption and reckless spending so lambasted by the jurors. The Broward State Attorney’s Office is reviewing the report, and has the authority to make arrests, but past inaction makes that seem unlikely.

As reported by Bob Norman of the Broward-Palm Beach New Times:

The investigation is continuing, but I’m not real optimistic that there will be widespread retribution for the hundreds of millions of pilfered taxpayers’ dollars the School Board redistributed to lobbyists, contractors, and other district vendors. It’s going to depend on the cooperating witnesses.

I remember another much ballyhooed grand jury that supposedly investigated the hell out of the School Board. It was put together by State Attorney Michael Satz and run by former prosecutor John Countryman. It too ended with a report full of righteous indignation – and it too let the perps walk.

It’s becoming a pattern. The School Board gets gamed out of millions by well-connected campaign contributors, the public gets outraged, the authorities investigate with a grand jury, the grand jury bloviates like mad about the evils of the board, and… nothing changes.

What’s maddening here is that the grand jury not only failed to take action but it left out all the names in its report, like blind items in gossip newspapers. Why?

In many cases, it’s apparent who the jurors are talking about. We all know Jennifer Gottlieb was behind the Beachside Boondoggle and that Bob Parks loved to put his name on public buildings. But some are left to the imagination.

The Sun-Sentinel also noted:

The panel found that the Beachside Montessori School in Hollywood is “a microcosm of everything that is wrong with the board and district.” The grand jurors said the board “engaged in underhanded tactics” to build the $25 million school in an area where nearby schools had plenty of empty seats while schools in the western part of the county remained overcrowded. The report says Beachside was one board member’s pet project. That official is unidentified, but it is known that Gottlieb was the school’s strongest champion.

The Grand Jury, whose 12-month term expires at the end of February, offered up an interim report in late December urging lawmakers to enact measures in the coming legislative session to curtail corruption deemed “pervasive at all levels of government” and hold accountable those public officials who “flagrantly abuse their positions,” yet escape reprimand.

Miami Beach Democrat and former state Sen. Dan Gelber acknowledged the findings and recommendations of that report might have been well intentioned, but given that the Grand Jury lacks the authority to implement changes in both instances, their work may be in vein:

“The problem has not been the ideas. It’s been the unwillingness of the Legislature to really reform itself and public offices around the state,” [Gelber] said. “The Legislature refuses to seriously address public corruption. I commend the grand jury for cataloging a lot of the ideas. At the end of the day, unless there’s the political will to implement them, it will be meaningless.”

The Broward School Board met this week in Fort Lauderdale for a regularly scheduled workshop that is closed to public comments, yet citizens will have an opportunity to voice their opinions at the upcoming public meeting scheduled for March 1.

Read the Florida Grand Jury on Public Corruption’s final report and recommendations here.

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