For years, the water-stained ceilings at Oakland Park’s Northeast High School have sagged and leaked — occasionally forcing the relocation of classes, and prompting constant worry about the effect of mold on the school’s air quality. A badly damaged school roof is the main cause, though malfunctioning school air-conditioning units have also contributed to the pools of water that regularly gather up in the ceilings.
On Tuesday, one section of ceiling in the school’s hallway simply gave out. Chunks of tile dropped to the floor, along with a blast of water. It appears no one was seriously hurt, primarily because the collapse happened during class, when the halls were mostly empty, as opposed to during a period break when teens are crowding the hallways.
“Probably some water fell on some people, not really any ceiling fell on anybody,” said Northeast High junior Janny Raymond, 17, who was near the hallway when the ceiling caved. “It was dripping before, so I guess it was bound to happen.”
The quite literal crumbling of Northeast High is but the latest example of the Broward school district’s massive capital improvements to-do list, which has grown longer as state funding plummeted during the past few years. Cuts to the school district’s share of property taxes — money that pays for building repairs, new construction, and technology — forced the indefinite postponement of about $1.8 billion in planned school improvements.
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Northeast High School, built in 1962, saw its chance for an extreme makeover vanish. It was slated for a full school rebuild. The first two phases of that rebuild (a new cafeteria and a new school swimming pool) were completed, but the rest is on hold.
“When the dollars dried up, those projects got scrapped,” said Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie. School leaders are pushing for the state to restore the higher property tax funding in the upcoming legislative session.
“Those are conditions that I don’t want any of our kids in,” Runcie said of Northeast High. “It’s going to take money.”
In the meantime, Runcie said the district is examining short-term fixes to the Northeast High roof, a portion of which has been covered by a temporary tarp since Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The district regularly screens for air quality, and has closed off small portions of the school due to water damage and mold concerns.
The district has been using similar Band-Aids at schools such as Hallandale High School and Fort Lauderdale’s Stranahan High, where recent issues have included a locker room sewage leak and unusable playing fields.
State funding cuts aren’t the only cause of the decrepit conditions. Even in good budget years, schools in eastern and central Broward often took a back seat as the district raced to build schools for the fast-growing western suburbs. Corruption was also a factor, as a 2011 state grand jury report faulted the School Board for a history of mismanaging construction projects.
School Board member Katie Leach, whose district includes Northeast High, put it this way: “I blame all of us for failing that community.”
Leach, Runcie, and most other board members joined the district recently, and so were not implicated in the grand jury’s findings. Runcie promises to implement an “equitable and transparent” construction process if the district is able to secure additional state funding.
“We’re doing everything we can to ensure that this district is run efficiently,” Runcie said. “We just need to get the resources.”
Miami-Dade voters in November approved a $1.2 billion bond issue to raise money to fix crumbling schools and upgrade technology. Broward leaders are interested in pursuing a bond issue of their own, but district leaders say additional state property tax money is essential for that to happen, as the district doesn't have the financial ability to borrow bonds without that extra funding.