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Broward superintendent proposes outsourcing facilities department

Arguing that its expertise and focus is the education business — and not the construction business — Broward’s school district is considering outsourcing much of its long-troubled facilities department.

The proposal, in which about 40 of the department’s 65 jobs would be eliminated, is being pushed by Superintendent Robert Runcie, and comes at a time when Broward’s school-building activities have largely dried up under state budget cuts and the steady loss of students to competing charter schools. With fewer students and less money to work with, some big changes are called for, Runcie argues.

There’s also the problem of the district’s poor past performance in managing construction and renovation projects. The district for years has been plagued by over-budget projects, delayed projects, and overall waste of taxpayer dollars. At the same time, the facilities department has played a key role in some of Broward’s biggest corruption scandals. In 2009, for example, former School Board member Beverly Gallagher was arrested on bribery charges for accepting $12,500 in exchange for helping contractors (who were really undercover agents) land a piece of construction work.

In presenting his privatization plan to School Board members on Tuesday, Runcie said, “The cost of not doing this is projects being delayed, over budget, mishandled.” Runcie said the overhaul will allow the district to spend its construction dollars more efficiently “and improve public trust at the same time.”

School Board members, who were meeting in a non-voting workshop, didn’t formally approve the changes, though many of them seemed inclined to support it.

“We cannot continue to do what we’ve been doing,” said board member Rosalind Osgood. In the roughly six months since she’s been elected, Osgood said she’s struggled to get timely answers from the facilities department.

District leaders also noted that some other Florida school districts — including Miami-Dade — have increasingly turned to the private sector to manage construction projects. The Broward Teachers Union, which represents many facilities department employees, counters that Miami-Dade didn’t gut its in-house construction functions in the way that Broward is considering.

Facilities department employees flooded school district headquarters in hopes of saving their jobs. One of their key complaints: Runcie’s housecleaning leaves many of the department’s top management in place, while the ranks of project managers and clerical workers absorb the brunt of the layoffs.

Project manager David Herrmann told board members he’s suggested numerous initiatives to improve the department’s efficiency, only to be ignored by higher-ups.

“Give us a chance to perform, and provide us with ethical leadership, and I assure you will see positive change,” Herrmann said.