Published Online: April 30, 1997

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Anticipating Defeat, Broward Cancels Vote on Bonds

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School officials in Broward County, Fla., pulled a bond referendum from the November ballot last week rather than see it fail at the polls.

In place of the proposed $800 million bond issue, the rapidly growing school district plans to borrow about $350 million this summer to pay for repairs at its older schools and to ease overcrowding. District officials said they will wait until 1998 before asking voters to approve the remaining $450 million in bonds. Browse Education Week's 'Web Connection' Your Best On-line Source for Education Products and Services

The extra year will give the 217,000-student district time to rebuild the confidence of skeptical parents and taxpayers, some of whom are still smarting from promises they say were not kept after a 1987 bond issue.

The delay will also put distance between the school system and its current legal entanglements. The U.S. Attorney's office for the southern district of Florida, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Internal Revenue Service are investigating alleged corruption and mismanagement in the district's construction program. And local prosecutors convened a grand jury last week as part of a similar probe.

School board Chairman Abraham Fischler said last week that the extra year will give the district time to show that "we can [run a construction program] and be more responsive, and that will give the public more confidence in supporting a bond issue."

Mr. Fischler and Superintendent Frank Petruzielo, who came to the district in 1995, contend that the problems making headlines this spring have been corrected.

"We're still cleaning up spilt milk," the superintendent acknowledged, but "there have been significant policy changes that have totally restructured the way we are doing business."

Faster Action

School officials said raising the initial money from loans that don't require voter approval will let the district move sooner on its most critical needs, including renovation and replacement of old schools in rundown areas.

Mr. Petruzielo said he came up with the two-part plan two weeks ago after concluding that the Florida legislature would not give districts any more taxing authority this year.

District officials point to a $1.4 billion gap between the system's $2.4 billion construction needs over the next five years and what it can raise through property taxes and its share of a state fund for school construction. A 1995 effort add a penny to the local sales tax was soundly rejected by voters.

"I don't know if there is any other district in as bad a set of circumstances for overcrowding as we are," Mr. Petruzielo said.

Every year for the next seven, the district expects to gain 10,000 new students.

Neil Sterling, who heads a local political-action committee that will stump for the 1998 bond proposal, praised the new plan "as making all the sense in the world."

But Charlotte Greenbarg, a longtime critic of the school system and the chairwoman of a state watchdog group, said she didn't believe the delaying tactics would work: "What is going to make people who are inept and corrupted credible?"

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