FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Schools with revenue problems frequently have spending problems. Nowhere is that more clear than at Broward County Public Schools.

The massive school district, based in Fort Lauderdale, had a budget deficit of approximately $141 million in early 2011. In June of the same year it laid off more than 1,000 contract teachers, more than 50 regular classroom teachers and more than 400 non-instructional employees.

Yet at the same time the district was dropping millions of dollars on highly questionable items.

EAG inspected the school district’s check registry for 2011 and found some expenditures that are bound to catch the attention of more than a few bewildered taxpayers.

Our inspection revealed that the district spent a whopping $599,166 in one year on cellular telephone bills, $118,145 on golf carts, $1.7 million on security through the Broward County Sheriff’s Department, more than $200,000 to rent extra classroom space, and roughly $30,000 at local restaurants.

Do the people who run this district fail to realize they have a huge deficit and thousands of students who require adequate instruction?

Perhaps not.

In February, 2011 a grand jury issued a stinging report on the Broward County school board, calling it “inept and corrupted” by the influence of contractors and lobbyists.

“But for the constitutional mandate that requires an elected school board from each district, our first and foremost recommendation would have been to abolish the Broward County school board altogether,” the grand jury’s final report said.

A close look at the district’s spending makes that statement pretty understandable.

Cell phones and golf carts cost a lot

The district’s 2011 cellular phone bill of $599,166 is difficult to swallow. Perhaps it’s necessary for a few dozen key officials in the district to have work-issued cell phones, but we’re frightened to know how many phones nearly $600,000 pays for.

One clue came when a district employee told us that “Anybody who’s anybody has a cell phone.”

Perhaps the Broward district should cut down its list of “anybodys.” By our estimate, $599,000 would pay for about nine full time, entry-level  teachers, benefits included.

A statement from the district, reacting to the various spending questions we raised, failed to mention the cell phone bill.

We understand that Florida is golf country, and most schools probably have golf teams. We’re also guessing that the Broward County district probably has some large campuses, making walking from one place to another difficult for some.

But just how many golf cars does one school need?

The district wrote 85 checks to various golf cart companies, including 75 to Advantage Golf Cars, in 2011. The total price was $118,415.

For a school in the midst of laying off a bunch of teachers, and paying a huge fine to the state for overstuffed classrooms, one has to wonder if this expense was necessary. We suspect that $118,000 would come pretty close to paying for two entry level full time teachers, benefits included.

Here the explanation for the golf carts from Tracy Clark, public information officer for the district:

“Many of our schools utilize golf carts for school campus monitors to traverse the school campuses. The majority of the charges listed are for repairs and maintenance.”

Security, classroom space and restaurant tabs

There’s no doubt that security is a challenge for a school district with more than 250,000 students on 300 different campuses. We’re guessing that many of those campuses are in neighborhoods with high crime rates.

But one has to wonder if the district could have employed a private security company to meet at least some of its needs at a reasonable cost. Instead the district apparently relied on the Broward County Sheriff’s Department, which charged more than $1.7 million for its services over the course of one year.

The district made 79 different payments to the Sheriff’s Department in 2011. Most of the payments were three or four figures, but three payments were incredibly large. One was for $829,158 on May 26, $382,588 on June 29 and $268,392 on July 27.

Of course sheriff’s deputies are generally union members and are frequently paid handsome hourly wages for overtime work. We certainly hope district officials found their presence comforting enough to justify the immense cost.

Here’s what Clark had to say about the security expense:

“Expenditures to the Broward Sheriff’s Office cover special detail School Resource Officers for athletics, after school, special events, etc. for various schools.”

Questions also arise about the more than $200,000 spent on extra classroom space rented from Hispanic Unity of Florida ($170,179) and Faith United Church of God ($37,400).

According to the grand jury report issued in 2011, the same year that the extra space was rented, there was apparently gross mismanagement of classroom space in the district:

“The board has authorized the spending of billions over the last 10 years and has saddled Broward taxpayers with $2 billion in long term debt, and yet we have thousands of empty seats at under enrolled schools in the eastern portion of the county and critically overcrowded schools in the western part of the county and no concrete plans to address the problem,” the grand jury report said.

The district was hit with a $66 million fine due to exceeding classroom size limits.

Thousands of empty seats, yet the district still spends six figures to extra rent classroom space. Somebody probably should look into that.

Clark explained that the rental space houses the district’s “Off Campus Learning Centers.”

“The OCLC provides a full 24 credit high school diploma, credit recovery/retrieval, and technical school opportunities for students who have dropped out of school or are at risk of dropping out of school,” Clark said.

The district’s restaurant tab showed a preference for Zuccarelli Restaurant, where 13 checks were written for a total of $25,018. Nine of those checks were for more than $1,000. The district also wrote two checks to Tropical Acres Steakhouse for a total of $4,908.

Clark offered no comment about the restaurant expenditures.

Ashleigh Costello contributed to this report

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