Broward School Board votes to privatize school construction work


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•  Cypress Bay High School science teacher Patrick Geller was suspended for two days – punishment for being caught sleeping for several minutes at the beginning of class. Geller’s explanation: He had been up with his baby the night before. Geller’s past disciplinary issues were a factor in the district’s punishment decision.

•  A $2.3 million pilot program was approved to distribute laptop computers to about 3,200 fifth-grade students in the coming year. Schools have until May 30 to apply to participate.

Without knowing what the final price tag will be – but with the hope of restoring credibility to school construction projects – Broward School Board members on Tuesday approved privatizing most of the district’s long-troubled facilities department.

The dramatic change, in which about 40 of the department’s 65 jobs will be eliminated, was the brainchild of Superintendent Robert Runcie.

By a 7-2 vote, board members approved the plan, though the knowledge that dozens will be laid off made the debate highly emotional. Several board members became teary-eyed during the discussion.

“I am not approaching this as ‘These are people that we want to get rid of,’ ” board member Katie Leach said. The overhaul is necessary, Leach said, because it’s “what’s in the best interest of our district.”

The Broward Teachers Union, which represents many of the affected workers, has filed a formal grievance protesting the layoffs – a process that’s expected to take months to play out. To stop the changes, the union will likely need an arbitrator to rule in its favor.

Broward’s facilities department has been at the center of numerous school-construction scandals over the years, though in many cases it was board members or the department’s top management who were implicated in the wrongdoing, not rank-and-file workers.

Runcie pitched privatization as a move toward efficiency and a way to get construction projects done on time and on budget.

As part of the downsizing, Broward will shed many of its project manager jobs, along with the entirety of its in-house architects and engineers. Some senior-level management will remain, but the day-to-day monitoring of construction projects will largely be outsourced. District leaders say they haven’t yet settled on what company will be hired for that task, but they are strongly considering San Francisco-based URS, a large global firm that performs similar work for the Orange County school district in Orlando.

Though hiring an outside company is expected to cost millions, Runcie says the layoffs will save about $4.1 million in payroll, which should more than cover the expense of outsourcing, Runcie said.

Board members Nora Rupert and Patricia Good, however, were upset that the facilities overhaul was moving forward without detailed financial projections.

“I was provided very little information about this, other than it’s a company out of Orange County,” Good said. “Maybe that’s why I’m so uncomfortable.”

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