The Broward school district has been awarding builders often multimillion-dollar contracts for new schools, classrooms and rebuilding projects for the past decade -- and in turn, contractors have been eager to pony up big dollars for School Board members running for office.
That practice is now under intense scrutiny by federal law enforcement authorities in the wake of last week's arrest of School Board member Beverly Gallagher.
FBI agents posing as contractors.
For watchdogs who have urged the district to reform practices they found questionable, Gallagher's arrest appeared to validate longtime concerns.
"It doesn't shock me that this scandal is occuring," said Nick Sakhnovsky, who chairs a task force that keeps tabs on district construction. "The writing was on the wall -- and it wasn't in invisible ink."
School construction is profitable work. The Broward district's budget for new schools, renovations and repairs is about $1.3 billion for the next five years. It has 285 schools and several district office buildings.
That's small compared with the money spent during Broward's building boom. Last year's five-year construction and maintenance budget neared $3 billion.
"It was an economic engine," Superintendent Jim Notter said Friday.
The decision about what contractor lands the often lucrative deals is vetted by a committee, but ultimately the nine-member board has the final say.
The process begins with an 11-member Qualification Selection Evaluation Committee -- known as QSEC -- which screens contractors, ranking them partly based on their district track record.
The federal complaint against Gallagher says she accepted bribes in exchange for the promise to influence committee members to recommend a particular construction company for a $71 million Hollywood Hills High School renovation project.
The company was not named in the documents, but the School Board eventually awarded the contract to James B. Pirtle Construction. The Hollywood Hills project, along with dozens of others, has since been scrapped because of budget cuts.
Michael Garretson, the district's construction chief, has denied that Gallagher or any other School Board member ever asked him to pick a company for a project.
Charlotte Greenbarg, a district reform advocate who sits on the district's construction task force and audit committee, said observers suspected that appointees on the selection committee were doing the bidding of School Board members.
"I'm not surprised that it happened," she said. "I'm just surprised that it took this long. I think it's the tip of the iceberg."
Last year, district auditors warned against committee members using text messages or e-mails while they evaluated firms. The feds say Gallagher used text messages to coordinate the Hollywood Hills project.
The construction department also came under fire this summer when a controversial audit revealed the district overpaid more than $765,000 in classroom repairs after Hurricane Wilma. The in-house district auditors suggested some overbilling may have been intentional fraud or collusion -- an idea schools staff rejected.
The contractor selection committee was born in 2005 as a revamped version of a previous group, the Consultant's Review Committee. That had been created in the late 1990s after a grand jury ripped the School Board for shoddy construction practices.
Ironically, the switch was intended to take politics out of choosing contractors -- and to bring more knowledgeable district employees into the process.
Watchdogs in Broward long viewed school building contracts
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