Broward loses out on grant to put solar panels at middle school

For a school district that prides itself on environmental awareness — but also operates under a tight budget — the situation seemed like a win-win.

Thanks to federal stimulus dollars, Broward’s school district received a nearly $100,000 grant to build solar panels at Miramar’s New Renaissance Middle School. The district and Broward County government joined forces in 2010 to obtain the grant.

Since then, Broward’s school district has repeatedly botched the project, according to county documents and those involved in the effort. On Tuesday, School Board members officially canceled their joint construction agreement with the county.

Their vote was the final step in killing a project that was quietly abandoned by district officials last year.

Instead of receiving a 10-kilowatt photovoltaic system free of charge, Broward’s school district is left wondering what could have been.

“There’s a lot of questions that have to be answered,” School Board member Nora Rupert said Tuesday.

The solar panels, in addition to reducing energy costs at the school, were also supposed to be a teaching tool for students. And because New Renaissance operates as a hurricane shelter, the solar panels could have provided a source of emergency electricity in the event of a hurricane-caused power outage.

Board member Patricia Good, whose district includes the middle school, said the district should have worked aggressively to get the solar panels built by mid-2012, which was the deadline outlined in the grant. Instead, the district let time slip by without making significant progress.

“I remember everyone being very excited about this opportunity, and talking about it,” Good said. “I’m really a little troubled by this whole thing.”

In addressing board members, the school district’s construction chief, Shelley Meloni, said administrators were “very saddened” by the project falling apart, and she acknowledged there had been “a little bit of a delay” in getting a partnership agreement with the county. That agreement was necessary before other key steps — such as hiring a construction company — could begin.

A project timeline written by county staff shows the federal grant was awarded in September of 2010. By November of that year, the county provided a partnership agreement for the school district to sign.

The district’s legal staff then spent four months reviewing that agreement — ultimately requesting only minor changes. The county’s legal staff responded quickly, and approved a revised partnership agreement “within one week,” according to the timeline.

But with the ball back in the school district’s court, things slowed down. Another three months passed before School Board members were presented with the agreement to vote on.

When the school district finally tried to hire a construction company, there were more problems. The price estimates coming from various companies were too high. Broward County agreed to contribute another $20,000 so that the solar panels could still be built.

The next issue to arise, however, derailed the project for good. In publicly advertising its construction project (so that interested companies could bid on the work), the school district had accidentally omitted required legal language dealing with issues such as fair wages for workers or environmental protection. The missing paragraphs had little practical impact, but technically speaking, they were supposed to be there.

The school district had plenty of advance warning that it needed to include those legal terms — the terms were specifically listed in the partnership agreement it signed with Broward County.

“It was probably just overlooked,” said Jennifer Jurado, a director within Broward County’s Environmental Protection and Growth Management Department.

Had the school district included the necessary legal language, the solar panels would have been built, Jurado said.

Even with the legal terms missing, however, Broward County still worked to save the project. According to the written timeline, attorneys for the county believed the legal terms could be added after the fact — allowing construction to still go forward.

But the school district’s legal staff didn’t feel comfortable with that last-minute fix. With the grant deadline looming, there was no time to re-advertise for construction firms. The project was canceled.

Although some of the grant money had to be forfeited, the county was able to keep most of it to fund other local energy conservation and environmental-awareness programs. The school district and county have teamed up before on numerous successful environmental programs, and both say they will continue working together.

Superintendent Robert Runcie, meanwhile, says management changes he made to the district’s Facilities & Construction Department should prevent the loss of grant dollars in the future.

“It’s free money to do something real exciting and innovative, and involve the schools in it,” Runcie said. “Those are priority items for us, and we should have worked with greater diligence and urgency, and attention to detail, to get that done. Unfortunately, clearly that didn’t happen.”