Broward schools

Broward school board ponders an $800 million bond issue

 

Broward may ask voters to approve a bond issue to fund construction and technology needs; it would cost homeowners about $50 a year.

mrvasquez@MiamiHerald.com

Dozens of schools with leaky roofs. A high school that lacks its own auditorium. Classroom computers from 1996.

Broward school district leaders say those issues are only a few examples of the more than $2 billion in current unfunded capital improvement needs — and the district is leaning toward asking county voters for help.

On Thursday, Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie pushed board members to propose a $800 million, 30-year bond issue, which would go before voters in November. If voters approve, the bond issue will add about $50 to the average homeowner’s annual property tax bill, district officials said.

The money would be spent on construction repairs, technology upgrades and school safety improvements such as ensuring Broward schools only have a single point of entry for visitors.

“I see it as the beginning of the future for us,” Runcie told board members. “It’s ultimately, I think, going to define our legacy, the legacy of this board.”

School Board members didn’t take a formal vote on the idea — that vote will come on Tuesday. But since most board members are strong supporters of the superintendent, it’s likely to get the go-ahead next week.

“If we’re really serious about moving our children forward, it’s not just our responsibility, the community has to help us with this,” School Board member Rosalind Osgood said. Osgood said the average tax increase of $50 was well worth it.

“That’s what, a pair of shoes?” she said.

A detailed spending plan, to be unveiled at a series of community meetings, would be released in the coming months.

The decaying condition of some Broward schools is due to a variety of factors: the natural wear-and-tear of older buildings, the failure of previous school district leadership to maintain schools properly, and deep state budget cuts in recent years.

Should the bond issue become official next week, it would kick-start a high-stakes six-month political campaign to convince voters to voluntarily increase their taxes. Miami-Dade’s school district successfully pulled off that feat in 2012, when its voters approved a $1.2 billion bond issue. The Miami-Dade ballot referendum passed by an overwhelming margin, with more than two-thirds of voters saying yes.

Miami-Dade’s sales pitch to voters was aided by its charismatic, politically-savvy superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, and also by the fact that Carvalho had a lot of achievements to brag about. The district had successfully turned around some of its most problem-plagued inner-city schools, and student achievement overall had improved.

A month before the vote, Miami-Dade schools won the prestigious $1 million Broad Prize, which only further fueled the positive momentum.

In Broward, the task of selling a bond issue is arguably more difficult. A little over three years ago, Broward’s schools were blasted for “reckless spending of taxpayer money” by a statewide grand jury. The 2011 report found the district had a culture of corruption, and that its facilities and construction department operated “with little regard for quality, accountability, or fiscal responsibility.”

Four months before the grand jury report, a Broward School Board member had been arrested on corruption charges. A year before that, another School Board member was arrested for corruption.

These days, most Broward School Board members have been replaced. The district insists it has started a new chapter, although some in the public have their doubts.

“We’re up against things that happened in the past that we all were not here for,” said School Board member Laurie Rich Levinson.

Runcie — the new superintendent and an outsider from Chicago — was selected in the aftermath of the grand jury, and tasked with restoring credibility.

He says he has done just that. Broward’s former director of facilities was forced to resign back in 2012, and the school district has adopted an array of new contract procedures and safeguards designed to protect taxpayers.

Is that enough to gain voters’ trust this November? That may end up being the $800 million question.

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