About William Gjebre


Website: http://www.floridabulldog.org
William Gjebre has written 17 articles so far, you can find them below.


Union ousts top officer for talking to reporter about union president’s big pay hike

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

A top union official has been suspended by his union for speaking out to a Florida Bulldog reporter and raising questions about the Miami-Dade school administration giving a huge pay hike to the union’s president two months before the School Board began approval of two contracts that outsourced lawn maintenance usually done by union workers.

That was one of the new developments spawned by the controversy. Others include new information that Union President Vicki Hall’s combined district and union salary is nearing $100,000; the school district administration is seeking to distance itself from the matter; some union members are considering addressing their concerns to the School Board at a public hearing on Wednesday, March 15.

On March 7, Hall, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 1184, persuaded the local’s executive board to back her move to suspend and remove Terry Haynes as the local’s senior vice president.

Members of the executive board, aside from Hall, who voted for the removal were Vannie Brown, Joan Jones, Charles Hepburn, Helen Huls, Michael Norman, Tanya Page, Sabrina Small, Theresa Storr and Bryon Houghtaling, according to Haynes.

The suspension came one day after Haynes, in story by the Florida Bulldog, questioned a district-approved $16,000 pay increase that raised Hall’s salary to $42,000 from $26,000; Haynes linked the hike to the two contracts that went unopposed by the union. The Miami-Dade County Public School Board approved the contracts on Nov. 18, 2015, and Feb. 3, 2016, totaling up to $1.8 million over five years for private firms to perform lawn service at district property.

Hall did not return calls for comment. Just before the meeting where Haynes was suspended, Hall called the Florida Bulldog to ask for an email address, saying she planned to respond to the article. She did not respond, nor did she respond to additional calls for comment on the last Tuesday’s suspension.

“She suspended me for talking to you about union matters without going through” her, Haynes said. Haynes maintained, however, that Hall had given him permission to speak to the media for a prior story about the controversy—and he continued to do so, questioning the pay increase and its relationship to the two contracts.

A testy meeting

The meeting at the union’s Miami Springs office got a little testy. Haynes said when he tried to remove his personal items, Hall insisted that he leave right away and then placed a call to Miami Springs police to make sure he left. Haynes said he left before any police officers arrived.

The suspension, Haynes said, requires him to refrain from involvement in his duties as a union official.

On the evening of the suspension, Haynes said he did not receive any written statements outlining the reasons for his removal. But on the following Friday he received certified mail at his Miami Gardens home. “As you were notified, you are no longer a Local 1184 Sr. Vice President and you can no longer handle any cases that involve AFSCME Local 1184.” Hall asked that Haynes return to the union all case documents he has in his possession by the end of Wednesday March 15. If not returned by then, the “property will be considered stolen” and the union will consider legal action to recover the material, Hall’s letter stated.

Hall also sent a letter notifying the school district that Haynes, who had been released from his district job duties as a custodian to perform full-time work on union business, should be returned to his district job responsibilities.

The suspension, however, might violate the union’s constitution, which requires the presentation of formal charges that specify recognized reasons for removal. Haynes said no such charges were presented. He also said the union’s constitution has a “bill of rights” that protects freedom of speech.

“I didn’t violate any rules,” Haynes said.  “I don’t think she has the authority [to suspend me].” Furthermore, he said he was planning to file an appeal to the national AFSCME union in Washington, D.C. and to reach union members to explain his actions.

Haynes said he will challenge Hall in May when the union presidency is up for grabs.

Meanwhile, it was learned that Hall’s salary from the union for 2016 was about $50,000. Her annual school district salary currently is $43,000 annually, which the union reimburses to the district, along with benefit costs. Union dues pay for her union salary.

Top district officials, including Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, Human Resources Chief Officer Jose Dotres and Assistant Superintendent Vivian Santiesteban-Pardo, in charge of Labor Relations, did not  return calls from the Florida Bulldog requesting comment regarding the outsourcing stories.

Santiesteban-Pardo told The Miami Herald that Hall was promoted from a 10-month to a 12-month bus driver when elected “in order to provide parity with the 12-month position of the previous union president.”

‘Unheard’ of pay hike

“That’s nonsense,” Haynes said, adding that he never heard of that occurring before. The union-school district contract provides that Hall’s salary should have been hiked by only $1,700 upon going from a 10-month to a 12-month bus driver, he said.

After being assigned to head Labor Relations in July, 2016, Santiesteban-Pardo told The Herald she began working to resolve grievances related to the outsourcing, with a settlement being reached in January “to ensure contractual procedures for outsourcing would be followed by all district entities.”

The settlement, Haynes said, provides what is already in the contract – provisions that were observed for many years – that the district notify the union when considering outsourcing, outline the scope of the work and give the union time to respond.

The school district followed these contract provisions for many years, until it ignored them in the awarding of the two contracts, Haynes said. “That’s not a settlement at all,” Haynes added. Haynes’ suspension may prevent him from pursuing two grievances he filed in connection with the outsourcing contracts that he maintained were not covered by the recent settlement signed by Hall.

“The District’s action and resolutions are unrelated and this issue may reside more appropriately under the union’s domain,” Santiesteban-Pardo told The Herald.

After school district officials helped create the problem by outsourcing contracts without notice to the union as required, Haynes said, they are now trying to push back from the controversy. “They are trying to get the heat off the district,” Haynes said. “They can’t distance themselves from this. This came from top management, backed by Carvalho.”

There has been talk, Haynes said, that some union members may attend the school board meeting this Wednesday to speak on the controversy and related issues.

Miami-Dade schools gave union boss fat pay hike before outsourcing work

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Miami-Dade Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho and AFSCME, Local 1184 President Vicki Hall at a meeting in November 2016.

The Miami-Dade public schools administration gave a 60 percent pay hike to the president of the union that represents the district’s lowest-paid employees months before the school board approved one of two contracts that outsourced lawn maintenance work traditionally performed by union workers.

A top official of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1184 is questioning why president Vicki Hall got such a large pay increase and linked it to the two contracts that went unchallenged by the union before they were approved. The raise brought Hall’s annual school district salary from $26,141 to $42,000, records show.

“Why would they change her pay status … and give her a $16,000 increase? I tie it to the two contracts,” said union senior vice president Terry Haynes, adding that Hall’s pay raise exceeded promotion provisions of the labor contract by more than $14,000.  “She cut deals” related to the district’s outsourcing contracts, he said.

AFSCME officials have complained that the outsourcing, which could pay private firms up to $1.8 million over five years, violates the union’s labor agreement with the district and will result in loss of work for employees represented by the union. The controversy has exposed sharp differences between Hall, who was elected president of the local in May 2015, and Haynes, the local’s second in command.

Hall was asked to comment on her salary hike and how it came about. “You want me to incriminate myself,” she said before hanging up.

Re-contacted again a few days later, Hall declined to comment.

In an earlier interview several months ago,  Hall maintained that “no deals” were made and that she was “still a bus driver.” She also said that her annual salary increase was only from $36,000 to $42,000 – numbers different than those provided by the school district.

The union also provides Hall a separate salary stipend for her service as president, and reimburses the school administration for her school district salary so she can carry out union duties full time. The union represents about 7,900 employees, including custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, maintenance employees and some staffers at WLRN, the public radio and TV station whose license is owned by the Miami-Dade School Board.

A comparison

By way of comparison, Haynes said the district never gave longtime union president Sherman Henry a large pay increase or a better pay grade. Instead, Haynes said, Henry got the same increases negotiated for all union employees. Henry retired from the school district two years ago after serving as union president for 24 years.

Superintendent of Schools Alberto Carvalho, who union officials say backed the two outsourcing contracts, did not respond to a call for comment. School Board Attorney Walter Harvey did not return calls for comment, or to an email asking him whether the outsourcing contracts violated the union’s labor agreement with the district, as union representatives contend. Chief Human Resources Officer Jose Dotres also would not comment.

School district Chief Communications Officer Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, however, maintained that the outsourcing contracts don’t violate the board’s contract with AFSCME, and that an agreement has been reached with the union to clarify outsourcing procedures. She added that the settlement resolves all grievances filed about the two contracts that outsourced lawn service.

The settlement, signed by Hall and district officials, calls for the district to do what the district’s labor agreement called for it to do: give notice to the union when it plans to outsource work, outline the scope of work and allow the union time to decide if it wants to challenge.

Union officials complained that had not been done. “I think downtown is in control’’ of the union, said Haynes, who disagreed with both the settlement and any claim that it resolves two grievances he filed about district outsourcing work.

School district officials refused to provide Hall’s annual salary on Jan. 1, 2015 and on July 1, 2015 when she and union members received a union-district negotiated pay increase. Andrea Williams, executive director in the Office of Labor Relations, said the district only provides hourly rates for 10-month school bus drivers; Hall’s official job with the district on those dates was that of a 10-month bus driver.

An analysis of school district information, however, shows that as of July 1, 2015, Hall’s salary was $26,141 a year. Three months later, Hall’s annual salary jumped 60 percent to $42,000 after the administration changed her status to a 12-month school bus driver. The change put Hall on a more lucrative salary schedule.

According to Haynes, Hall’s salary should have increased only by about $1,600 a year under promotion provisions in the district’s labor contract with AFSCME.

Outsourcing followed union president’s big raise

In November 2015, two months after Hall’s salary hike to $42,000, the first of the two lawn maintenance outsourcing contracts was approved by the School Board. The five-year contract authorized 11 companies to provide lawn services totaling up to $1 million. The type of work includes tree, palm and shrub trimming, pruning and stump removal, according to board records.

The contract was approved two days after the union withdrew a related previous grievance and a request for arbitration. The union filed the grievance in June 2014 after discovering that a private firm was doing lawn service work at Krop Senior High School in North Dade.

According to documents provided by the school district, the district paid about $273,000 to the companies it contracted with to outsource lawn services. the district contacted with as of Nov. 29, 2016. The union did not file a grievance at the time the contract was approved.

The other contract, for up to five years, was approved by the School Board on Feb. 3, 2016. Thomas Maintenance Service will be paid up to $800,000 to mow vacant lots and clear fence lines.

According to documents provided by the school district, nearly $82,000 was paid to Thomas Maintenance as of last November. The union did not file a grievance at the time that contract was approved, either.

Haynes accuses Hall of failing to take a strong stance against the district’s efforts on outsourcing. “It’s her responsibility to watch board items” and guard any actions detrimental to employees represented by the union, he said.

Haynes criticized the union’s withdrawal of the Krop High grievance. “She ordered the grievance pulled in a deal cut with Labor Relations,” he said.

“I told her not to pull it because it can result in a pattern,” Haynes said.”The grievance should never have been pulled because they may try to do it again.” And they did, he added.

In the interview months ago, Hall had a different version. She said that in November 2015 she ordered the Krop grievance withdrawn because she was given assurances from an official in Labor Relations that the union would be notified in the future of any outsourcing proposals.

It was “based on a good faith” promise, Hall said.

Hallandale Beach halts advertising in local newspaper where mayor is a columnist

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

A column by Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper in the Sun Times

Hallandale Beach city commissioners have pulled the plug on city advertising in the local Sun Times newspaper featuring articles by Mayor Joy Cooper that drew fire from commission colleagues as “propaganda” for the mayor.

Cooper used the platform regularly before and after the weekly newspaper received a favorable — and controversial — $50,000 loan from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA). The Sun Times, according to city documents, has been paid nearly $400,000 in city advertising to publicize events since 2003, most of the money coming after the loan was made during the 2008-2009 budget year.

The Florida Bulldog published a story about the loan, which later became a matter of interest to the Broward Inspector General’s Office in its 2012 probe. While the IG stated the Hallandale Beach CRA had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars, tallied $2.2 million in questionable expenditures and made inappropriate loans and grants to local businesses and non-profits, there was no finding of wrongdoing in the city’s Sun Times loan.

“The whole thing is a propaganda paper for the mayor,” said Commissioner Michele Lazarow, who moved at the Dec. 7 meeting to halt funding immediately.

While not voted on, the measure gained consensus support from the new majority of the five-member commission, and city staff said it would not place any more advertisements in the newspaper. Cooper had left the meeting before the item came forward.

In the past, the newspaper had the support of Cooper and commissioners who backed her. Lazarow, Vice Mayor Keith London, a long-time Sun Times critic, and newly elected Commissioner Anabelle Taub successful pushed the item to halt further advertising.

“The Sun Times is the mayor’s pulpit or podium for her to spin the truth,” Lazarow said at the meeting. “It has become a political rag during the political season.” Making matters worse, she added, the newspaper was unfair by not accepting or allowing “rebuttal.”

“I’m appalled that city funds go to the Sun Times,” Taub said at the meeting. “We should not fund the mayor’s political propaganda and personal vendettas and attacks.”

Taub said she was incensed during her recent election campaign when the Sun Times printed personal information about her that “could be used to commit fraud on me.”

“They have a one-sided view of city hall,” said London, adding that a reporter from the newspaper rarely attends a city commission meeting.

Mayor: ‘I will continue writing’

“They are entitled to their opinion,” Cooper told a reporter in response to the criticism from her commission colleagues. “I report on city business. I will continue writing. Everything I write is edited by an editor and it’s their choice to use it.”

Cooper began writing for the Sun Times in 2003, the year she became mayor. Her opinion piece last week was about Dr. Martin Luther King and political protest.

 

Sun Times officials said they were unfazed by the funding cutoff. “The commission has every right to do so,” said Craig Farquhar, president of the South Florida Digest, which publishes the Sun Times. As for the accusation that the newspaper has been a forum for the mayor’s propaganda, he said, “That’s their political opinion.”

The money paid by the city to the Sun Times, Farquhar added, “was to promote city events.”

City records showed that between 2003 and 2008, the city paid the Sun Times about $32,000 for advertising – an average of about $6,400 a year. But the relationship changed the following year.

That’s when the Sun Times became the first city business to receive a loan under a new program, funded through the CRA, to retain and to assist firms having financial difficulties. It received a 10-year $50,000 loan, with half of it forgiven, to be paid at two percent interest; the loan balance of approximately $7,500 is expected to be paid off in July 2019.

What raised questions about the newspaper’s financial problems was that Farquhar and another official of the newspaper, Cecile Hines, were each paid an average of over $200,000 in 2007 and in 2008, the years before the Sun Times received the city loan.

City advertising in the Sun Times, after the loan approval, also began to escalate. From 2008-2009 until the end of 2016, the city paid the newspaper $362,929, averaging more than $45,000 yearly during the past eight years, according to city documents.

 

New majority on Hallandale commission wants to know: Where did CRA millions go?

Update: Jan. 23 – Hallandale Beach city commissioners Monday night gave initial approval to hiring an accounting firm to conduct a forensic audit of the city’s long troubled Community Redevelopment Agency.

Sitting as directors of the CRA, the commission designated the firm of Stanley I. Foodman, CPA & Advisor, to work with newly appointed City Manager Roger Carlton to determine the audit’s scope and cost. Carlton will present their proposal to commissioners for approval at a meeting next month.

Vice Mayor Keith London, who presented the item that won unanimous approval, said the audit will determine the CPA fund balances dating back to 2012, when a CRA fund was first established. The audit will also review prior land purchases by the CRA that forced $7.4 million in cuts from the CRA budget.

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org  

The Hallandale Beach City Commission. From left to right: Anthony Sanders, Anabelle Taub, Mayor Joy Cooper, Vice Mayor Keith London, Michele Lazarow

The new majority on the Hallandale Beach City Commission will seek the first-ever forensic audit of all expenditures by its troubled Community Redevelopment Agency for the past five years, including finding out why $7.4 million had to be cut to balance the agency’s budget this fiscal year.

Current Vice Mayor Keith London and Commissioner Michele Lazarow had been frustrated in seeking such an audit by the previous commission majority headed by Mayor Joy Cooper.

The November city commission election resulted in London and Lazarow gaining the backing of new City Commissioner Anabelle Taub. Cooper was reelected, but failed to gain another commissioner to back her and her ally, Commissioner Anthony Sanders. They’re expected to vote on the audit, aimed at determining whether any wrongdoing occured, later this month.

“Let’s see where the money went,” London said. “We are going to get to the bottom of this.”

The new commission trio already has flexed its power in a remake of city hall.

It was responsible for the ousters of City Manager Daniel Rosemond and City Attorney Lynn Whitfield, and replacing them with long-time South Florida government administrator, Roger Carlton, and a new city attorney, Jennifer Merino. Merino was general counsel for the Broward Inspector General’s Office, which investigated and severely criticized the spending practices of the city’s CRA four years ago.

“It’s time to clean house of the city manager and the city commission … the collusion,” Lazarow said.

Now the new commission majority will be seeking answers about the spending of the much-troubled CRA.

‘We need to find out’

“We need a full forensic audit [of the CRA],” London said. “We need to find out about the $7.4 million, and we need to know what we have left.”

London was referring to last August when city commissioners, who are also directors of the CRA, were forced to cut $7.4 million from the proposed $25.9-million CRA budget for this year after being told by the city administration that the agency had counted land purchases by the agency as cash.

At that meeting, then City Manager Rosemond said an “adjustment” had to be made — the city commission had no choice but to approve the budget cut.

Prior to that, London said the city manager had given commissioners assurances that cash was available to the CRA, only to learn that the value of the city-purchased land by the CRA cannot be counted as cash.

Both London and Lazarow lobbied for a forensic audit of expenditures at that time, but lacked a third vote. The commission instead voted to seek a forensic audit that delved only into CRA land purchases.

Making matters worse, London said, Rosemond later came back and told commissioners that he was unable to engage any firm willing to conduct the forensic audit of land purchases — and, therefore, no firm was hired.

That all changed, however, with the November city commission election. Lazarow was reelected, along with newcomer Taub. London was not up for reelection.

Now in the majority, London said he wants audit to cover CRA spending back to 2012, the first year city commissioners established a separate funding account for the agency.

“We need to know what we have,” he said.

“We have to inquire about the $7.4 million,” said Lazarow, adding she plans to back London’s request for a forensic audit when he brings it up for a commission vote. Taub, who was not available for comment, is also expected to back the request.

City co-mingled CRA funds

Prior to 2012, the city had co-mingled CRA funds with city funds. That practice started in 1996, when the CRA was established under state law. The agency has been funded through property tax increases in the CRA boundaries.

It was only when the Broward Inspector General’s Office began its probe and issued a scathing report that some changes were made, including separating CRA-collected funds from other city tax revenues. Florida Bulldog had reported about questionable loans to local businesses and land purchases through the CRA nearly a year before IG investigators descended on city hall in April, 2012 seeking records and questioning officials as the probe became public.

After a 14-month investigation, the Inspector General’s Office in 2013 stated the Hallandale Beach CRA had “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in funds between 2007 and 2012. It found $2.2 million in questionable expenditures by the CRA, including inappropriate loans and grants to local businesses and non-profits, as well as the improper use of bond proceeds.

Before and after that report, London asked for a forensic audit of agency funds, but was outvoted by his commission colleagues.

Mayor Cooper denied the city had done anything wrong. The city commission majority at that time then ousted the agency’s recently appointed CRA executive director, Alvin Jackson, who won praise by the Inspector General for efforts to improve the CRA.

The city commission, over the objections of London, placed the agency once again under the direct management of the city manager. Except for Jackson’s short tenure, city managers have had full control of the CRA since 1996, during which the agency failed to keep adequate records, including changing loan and grant policies in violation of existing rules.

Both London and Lazarow said they are pleased with the new appointees, in particular Merino, 36.

“She has knowledge of our city,” said London, referring to Merino’s work with the agency that investigated the city’s CRA.

“Merino has a history [with the city],” Lazarow said. “She has been watching our meetings.”

Carlton, 69, has held several key positions with public agencies, among them: Miami Beach city manager (1992-1995), executive assistant Miami-Dade county manager (1977-1981).

Miami-Dade union leaders fear more outsourcing of members’ work at district schools

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org   

Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho Photo: NBC6 South Florida

The Miami-Dade School Board has agreed to spend up to $1.8 million to outsource lawn service maintenance long done by unionized workers, and union leaders now say they fear Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is eyeing more privatization that could lead to additional work cuts for its members.

The two, five-year outsourcing contracts stand to eliminate tasks generally assigned to maintenance workers and custodians represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Local 1184.

“It’s work the employees are supposed to be doing,” said AFSCME local president Vicki Hall. AFSCME workers are generally the lowest-paid union members working for the school district; they include custodians, maintenance employees, bus drivers and food service personnel.

“It weakens the union when they outsource and take away jobs from the employees who should be doing the work,” said Terry Haynes, the AFSCME local’s senior vice president. He estimated the two contracts cost 10 to 15 school district jobs.

Both pointed the finger at Superintendent Carvalho for the outsourcing. “He’s aware of it; all falls under him,” Haynes said, adding the superintendent “backed the first two” contracts.

“I believe this is the start of outsourcing of all of lawn service,” Haynes said.

“He’s trying to outsource lawn service. He’s trying to privatize,” said Hall.

District officials did not respond to calls for comment on the issue, so reasons for the outsourcing were unknown, including whether they claim it was for cost reasons. Carvalho also would not discuss the matter when a reporter attempted to talk with him at the Dec. 14 board meeting.

A day after the meeting, however, district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego released this statement: “Recently, there was misunderstanding regarding the District’s procedures for contracting out. In an effort to provide clarity, the District and the Union are working on an agreement to ensure that all parties understand the process and protocols to be followed.”

Outsourcing a management right?

Union officials Hall and Haynes complained that in recent years district officials have taken the position that outsourcing is a management right that can be invoked unilaterally and they do not have to confer with the union.

But Haynes said the district is overlooking a ruling in a case years ago in which the union prevailed in arbitration. The ruling in that matter stated the district had to notify the union if it sought to outsource work that could be performed by union employees and the parties had to negotiate the impact of the proposed work. If the parties did not come to an agreement, the union could move ahead with arbitration.

After that case, the district generally followed that ruling, until recently, Haynes said, adding the two contracts are indicative of the district’s changing policy.

The first of the two contracts was approved by the School Board on Nov. 18, 2015 for up to five years for 11 companies to provide lawn service totaling up to $1 million. The type of work includes tree, palm and shrub trimming, pruning and stump removal, according to board records.

The contract was approved two days after the union withdrew a grievance and the request for arbitration. The union had filed the grievance in June 2014 after discovering that a private firm was doing lawn service work at Krop Senior High School in North Dade.

According to documents provided by the school district, approximately $273,000 has been paid to the companies as of Nov. 29, 2016. The union did not file a grievance at the time the contract was approved, according to Haynes.

The other contract, for up to five years, was approved by the School Board on Feb. 3, 2016. Thomas Maintenance Service will be paid up to $800,000 to mow vacant lots and clear fence lines.

According to documents provided by the school district, nearly $82,000 was paid to Thomas Maintenance as of Nov. 21, 2016.

Haynes said the union filed a grievance related to the Thomas Maintenance contract in April regarding work done at the district’s North Dade maintenance facility. Two more grievances were filed in September after the union learned about other outsourced lawn work at a high school and an elementary school, both in the northwest section, Haynes added. All three grievances remain pending.

New Miami-Dade School board member: Let’s focus on fixing failing schools

Update: The Miami-Dade School Board Wednesday unanimously approved a new plan to improve failing schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

The proposal, introduced by board member Steve Gallon, also gained the backing of residents and community leaders in the northwest section of the county. School Board Chair Larry Feldman said he hoped the strong showing of support by the board and the community will result in an initiative that will become “blue print” for the improvement of failing schools everywhere.

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Photo:CBS4Miami

Photo:CBS4Miami

 

Newly elected Miami-Dade School Board member Steve Gallon is proposing to focus the district’s attention on improving failing schools in some of the county’s poorest locations, often in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

Gallon, who campaigned on a promise to throw a spotlight on failing schools, has an item on Wednesday’s School Board agenda to address schools that have received repeated “F” ratings as well as those that have received a “D” under the state’s rating system.

The new school improvement proposal for failing schools is reminiscent – on a much smaller scale – of an initiative undertaken while Rudy Crew was superintendent of schools in Miami-Dade more than a decade ago.

Crew’s effort, which began in the second half of the 2004-2005 school year, entailed a large number of schools, with substantial district funding, during a period of intensive state scrutiny of failing schools. Known as the School Improvement Zone, the plan was abandoned after several more years with questionable results.

Gallon’s proposal, which makes no mention of specific funding support, calls on the Miami-Dade School Board to actively monitor the progress of the undertaking through the review of plans and programs, and other actions to bring about improvement.

While acknowledging that “the district as a whole has done well,” Gallon said in an emailed response to questions about his proposal, “there remain pockets of persistent underperformance in certain sectors of the community.”

He said his item was not “to indict the District for past performance” but “seeks to serve as a renewed call for action” for improving “F” and “D” schools.

A number of those failing schools are in District 1, which Gallon represents, and District 2, represented by board member Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall.

Gallon pointed to the following schools needing attention: Carol City Middle which has received five consecutive “F” grades; Brownsville Middle, which has received three “F” grades in a row, and North Dade Middle, which has received two consecutive “F” grades.

He listed four other schools with “F” grades: Skyway/Dr. Frederica S. Wilson Elementary; Poinciana Park Elementary, and Earlington Heights Elementary.

All seven schools are in School Board Districts 1 and 2.

“There needs to be a sense of urgency around addressing the needs of these schools in the areas that were enumerated and must include strategies that are inclusive of parents and stakeholders in the broader community,” Gallon said in his written response.

“This item is not simply about District 1 and 2,” said. “This item is about the collective responsibility and commitment of a united School Board that is charged with educational oversight of a unified school district. The approval of this item will further bolster the Board’s conversation and commitment to all schools and all children irrespective of voting districts or zip codes.”

Gallon called for a “review of the resource allocations in schools to ensure equity and the support structure to ensure effectiveness and impact.”

The School Board, he said, should “play a role” in monitoring the initiative “because what gets monitored gets done.”

Gallon’s item, which seeks board support for enactment, calls for the Superintendent to:

*Provide a status update, at the Feb. 15, 2017 School Board meeting, on the Districts’ F schools, including improvement planning, intervention and support, leadership, teacher quality and support, professional development, curriculum, resource allocation, technology and parental and community partnerships;

*Provide monthly status updates to the School Board on the progress of the F school improvement plan; and

*Initiate a framework and process to establish a District Advisory Board to provide input and support to the schools that earn two or more consecutive letter grades of F based on the annual state assessment.

Lawsuit: Rescind variance for ex-U.S. Rep.’s Hollywood charter school

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org

Rooftop "vegetation" atop Hollywood's Ben Gamla middle-high school. Photo: William Gjebre

Rooftop “vegetation” atop Hollywood’s Ben Gamla middle-high school. Photo: William Gjebre

The city of Hollywood violated municipal law when it approved a request by the controversial Ben Gamla middle-high school to stop maintaining a rooftop vegetation area that was a key consideration for a zoning exception allowing the school in a residential neighborhood.

This and other allegations made in a lawsuit filed by the Citizens For Responsible Development Inc. ask the Broward Circuit Court to rescind a Hollywood Planning and Development Board-approved variance for the school to operate without the rooftop green space at the facility headed by former U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-FL).

The school, which has drawn neighborhood opposition since it was proposed and opened during the past three years, was able to build a larger complex on its property at 2648 Van Buren St. by pledging to provide green area on the school’s roof rather than creating an open space recreational area elsewhere on its property, according to the complaint.

The school “should stick to” maintaining the rooftop green space, said Mark Schubert, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who lives near the school. The concern in the neighborhood, he added, is that Ben Gamla will abandon the rooftop green space and consider enclosing it for possible expansion, adding to existing traffic problems in the area just west of I-95 and south of Hollywood Boulevard.

“We believe it was clear the application [for the school] failed to meet the requirements of the city code” for the variance, said Michael Dutko, attorney for Citizens.

The planning board decision, the lawsuit said, has created “a concrete jungle to which Ben Gamla is contributing with its lack of open space and additional traffic which a larger school will create.”

Deutsch defended the planning board decision. “The planning board didn’t see it that way,” said Deutsch. “The board listened to testimony and rejected the pleas to deny.”

A zoning exception

In late 2013, the same city Planning and Development Board approved a zoning exception for Ben Gamla to build a middle-senior high school on 1.52 acres, with numerous conditions, including a commitment to provide and maintain a green space vegetation area on the roof.

The rooftop green space, the lawsuit said, provided about 10,000 square feet to meet the open space requirements under the city code. This also allowed the school to have a larger building footprint on the property, the complaint stated.

Deutsch said the grassy space on the roof was not self-imposed by the school, but was required by the city. The lawsuit, however, said that nothing in the city code required the school to have a green vegetation area.

But after the school opened in the fall of 2015, Ben Gamla officials “decided to abandon the green roof because it proved impractical and difficult to maintain,” the lawsuit stated.

Because the school was already constructed and it could not provide the needed open space on the property, the lawsuit stated, it sought a “hardship variance” to relieve it of some of the open space requirement.

The lawsuit says that at the June 9, 2016 hearing before the Planning and Development Board, city planners told board members that because the rooftop vegetation space was “self-imposed” by the school, city code does not permit the issuance of a variance. City staff urged denial.

City attorney Jeffrey Sheffel, according to the lawsuit, reiterated that the board could not issue the variance if the grassy rooftop was self-imposed. Sheffel did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

Board issues variance

Nevertheless, the planning board voted 6-3 to issue the variance, leading the citizens group to file the lawsuit in July.

If the variance withstands the legal challenge, Deutsch said, the school plans to clean up the rooftop and create a play field for students. Currently, he said, they are playing on a parking lot area at the rear of the property.

If the variance is blocked the school would have to look at some other solution or stay with a limited physical activity program in the parking lot area. 

In its petition for a variance, the school stated, that it was entitled to a variance because the proposed change does not materially alter aspects of the already-built facility — height and setbacks remain the same and the facility will continue to provide educational services. Shifting the play area to the rooftop will lessen noise in the neighborhood, the application stated.

Deutsch said the city commission, in effect, supported the planning board variance when it later rejected pleas for the commission to review the decision. In Hollywood, planning board decisions are not automatically reviewed by the city commission unless a majority of the commission wants to do so.

Deutsch also called neighbors’ fears that Ben Gamla plans to expand the middle-high school “absurd.” Residents, however, have expressed suspicions because – after winning approval for a two-story school – Ben Gamla representatives met with city officials about enclosing the rooftop area to add a third floor. The matter did not advance, but representatives linked to the school also have been connected to property acquisitions near Ben Gamla.

The former congressman was also critical of city commissioner Peter Hernandez, saying he had a part in the legal action challenging the city approved variance. “Commissioner Fernandez is trying to hurt Ben Gamla,” Deutsch said.

Hernandez declined to comment on the issue, including his membership (as stated in the complaint) in the group that filed the lawsuit. Hernandez represents the neighborhood that includes the Ben Gamla school. He has said that he has no objection to the students, just that the school was overwhelming for the residential neighborhood.

The lawsuit also complained that the city failed to provide adequate advance notice of the planning board’s hearing and backup information to the community. Residents received as little as a day or two notice before the hearing, giving them little time to prepare a response. Also, residents were limited to a few minutes each to speak.

The city of Hollywood, which has hired an outside law firm in the matter, is expected to respond to the complaint by Dec 31. Ben Gamla has formally intervened in the lawsuit, Deutsch said.

Legal cases challenging planning and zoning decisions by municipal agencies are heard by a three-member panel of judges that may rule based on documents filed or it may hear arguments by the parties.

Broward’s Inspector General probes Hallandale Beach CRA – again

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper is flanked on the left by Commissioners Keith London and Michele Lazarow and on the right by Commissioners Bill Julian and Anthony Sanders. The commission also sits at the city CRA's board of directors

Hallandale Beach Mayor Joy Cooper is flanked on the left by Commissioners Keith London and Michele Lazarow and on the right by Commissioners Bill Julian and Anthony Sanders. The commission also sits at the city CRA’s board of directors

The Broward County Inspector General’s Office has launched another inquiry into Hallandale Beach’s Community Redevelopment Agency, three years after finding the city “grossly mismanaged” millions of dollars in CRA funds.

The first probe led to reform and a grand theft charge against the director of a local cultural program for misspending CRA grant money. What triggered the new probe, however, isn’t known.

“I cannot comment,” said Inspector General John W. Scott, who leads the independent watchdog agency that investigates allegations of fraud, corruption and gross mismanagement at the county and Broward’s 31 municipalities. He’s asked the city and the CRA to submit the requested information by July 1.

A key focus of the inquiry, however, is the city’s Community Benefit Program (CBP). The program seeks to encourage private development and city-funded projects to recruit, train and hire city residents and local vendors.

Tuesday’s letter to the city from the Inspector General’s Office requested a variety of CRA documents from Jan. 1, 2013 to the present. They include: all voting conflict memos submitted by city commissioners, who also serve for directors of the CRA; the minutes of all city commission and CRA meetings; a list of all bid solicitations with a Community Benefit Program component as well as documentation from vendors identifying specific partners to be engaged in the program.

In addition, Inspector General Scott’s office requested documents related to two groups that received grants from the city and the CRA: the Palms Community Action Coalition and the South Florida Educational Development Center.

The latest inquiry set off another disagreement among city officials.

“While the CBP has good intentions,’’ said City Commissioner Keith London, “it is my belief the program has been hijacked and abused by insiders who have used their power and influence to steer contracts and jobs to unqualified persons and companies for no other reason than their political connections.”

London said residents should “review the voting record of each commissioner who has blindly supported the CBP policy, every CBP expenditure and bid sheet awarding millions of taxpayer dollars to firms whose major qualification was their connection to city hall.”

But Mayor Joy Cooper, who has differed bitterly with London in the past, played down the significance of the IG’s records request.

We have been in compliance”

Cooper cited the city’s Hallandale Opportunity Program that monitors grants and contracts. She said the program’s monthly reports have indicated compliance with city provisions, including by the Community Benefit Program. “We have tightened up” controls over grants and contracts, Cooper said. “We have been in compliance.”

City Manager Daniel Rosemond added the same internal group has monitored city funds going to South Florida Educational Development Center and there have been “no performance issues.”

Rosemond likewise sought to downplay the significance of the Inspector General’s inquiry, observing that he merely asked for some records.

“This is not an investigation,” Rosemond said in an interview, adding “I don’t believe there is anything substantive” to the inquiry, but rather that the IG has received some information and “has a fiduciary responsibility to look at it.”

In an email to commissioners, Rosemond said, “The nature of the [IG] request appears to center around the city’s Community Benefit Program, its administration and recipients.”

Palms Community Action Coalition members could not be reached; South Florida Educational Development Center members did not return calls for comment.

Palms Community Action Coalition (PCAC) is a group attempting to prevent and reduce crime, drug abuse and gang activity. The coalition came under scrutiny during the Broward Inspector General’s previous probe – although there was no finding of wrongdoing. Under a three-year agreement with the city, PCAC has received a total of $306,000.

According to state documents, the South Florida Educational Development Center, established six years ago, is a non-profit group that provides educational job training for youth and adults in underserved areas. It received $45,000 last year and again this year, and will receive the same amount next year under a three-year agreement ending Sept. 30, 2017.

City Commissioner Michele Lazarow said she and Commissioner London have questioned the effectiveness of the Community Benefits Program. In some instances, she said, city funds appeared to be going to only a few groups. There is also concern that some firms receiving city contracts may be having trouble fulfilling promised job slots because there are not enough qualified workers in the city.

A city ‘investigated twice’

“I wonder how many other Broward County cities have been investigated twice,” said Lazarow.

Commissioner Anthony Sanders could not be reached for comment. Vice Mayor Bill Julian said he could not comment because he hadn’t seen the IG’s letter.

In March 2013, after a 14-month investigation, the Inspector General’s Office found $2.2 million in questionable expenditures by the Hallandale Beach CRA between 2007 and 2012, including inappropriate loans and grants to local businesses and non-profits, as well as the improper use of bond proceeds.

The city, the report stated, improperly spent $416,000 in CRA money for parks outside the CRA boundaries. The spending, which was not always documented, was often done at what amounted to the whim of former City Managers Mike Good and Mark Antonio, the report said.

The Hallandale Beach CRA, like other similar agencies in other municipalities, was established under a state law that allows the agency to raise and spend a large portion of increased property tax dollars collected within the CRA’s boundaries on projects aimed at eliminating slum and blight. Nearly 50 percent of those funds come from Broward County, which approved establishment of the agency.

While city officials contended that all expenditures were permissible under state law, the Broward IG cited in its report a 2010 opinion by Florida’s Attorney General that CRA expenditures must be connected to “brick and mortar” capital projects.

At the conclusion of the last investigation, Hallandale Beach officials denied wrongdoing and challenged the authority of the Inspector General to oversee the city’s CRA.

Nevertheless, the city ultimately made changes as a result of the probe that included updating its CRA development plans and adopting procedures for awarding grants. The city also announced plans to repay the CRA for funds used for parks outside the CRA boundaries.

The IG’s finding also led Broward prosecutors to charge Palm Center for the Arts (PCA) director Deborah Brown with grand theft in May 2014. The IG reported finding probable cause to believe that Brown spent nearly $5,000 in CRA funds on herself and her family. The funds were designated by the city in 2010 to send children on a trip to Washington, D.C.

The criminal case remains pending in Broward Circuit Court, with the next hearing set for Sept. 22.

Banned in New Jersey’s public schools, ex-official wants on Miami-Dade School Board

 

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Steven Gallon III

Steven Gallon III

A former Miami-Dade County school principal/district administrator banned from working in New Jersey public schools following an investigation during his tenure as superintendent of a 7,000-student district is seeking a seat on the Miami-Dade School Board.

Steven Gallon III says his New Jersey troubles, including an arrest for theft, were “driven by politics.” Likewise he disputes allegations surrounding his firm’s management of a trio of South Florida charter schools and his authority to hire and set salaries. “That had nothing to do with me,” Gallon said in an interview.

With the school board election set for Aug. 30, Gallon has a sizeable funding lead in his attempt to unseat District 1 incumbent Wilbert “Tee” Holloway.

According to the latest campaign reports filed with the Miami-Dade elections office, Gallon has raised $65,120; Holloway, $17,900; and another candidate, James Bush III, $4,685.

Gallon, who worked his way up from teacher to principal at Miami Northwestern Senior High from 1998-2005 to district administrator in Miami-Dade public schools, said he’s running because District 1 needs a change.

“…The schools in District 1 continue to languish in the areas of student achievement, educator quality and support, and other areas that will ensure the learning and lifelong success of our students,” he said in a prepared statement to FloridaBulldog.org.

Aware of the funding gap, Holloway said the election is “not about money.” He said he believes he has done a good job for the parents and students in his district and hopes voters will support his re-election.

Holloway declined to comment about controversy surrounding Gallon, including his tenure in New Jersey. It is for the voters to decide, he said.

New Jersey controversy

In 2008, Gallon was hired as superintendent of the Plainfield, N.J., public schools at a salary of $198,000. Not long afterward, controversy enveloped the new superintendent.

First, the New Jersey Department of Education found that two of three Miami colleagues that Gallon hired did not have the required certifications for their $100,000-plus positions, according to a New Jersey media report. After the finding, the two, Lalelei Kelly and Lesly Borge, were fired by the school board, the report stated.

School Board incumbent Wilbert "Tee" Holloway

School Board incumbent Wilbert “Tee” Holloway

Despite the news report, Gallon said in his statement, “Only one of the four from Florida had an issue and was erroneously placed in the wrong position by Human Resources when hired and prior to my arrival as superintendent.”

Furthermore, he stated, “… with respect to the certifications of staff, I requested a state inquiry and the state concluded that I did no wrong and there were issues with nearly 30 other employee[s] that were employed by the district prior to my arrival and under the responsibility of the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources.”

Following the certification issue, Gallon, Kelly and Angela Kemp, his third assistant from Miami, were charged with stealing more than $10,000 worth of educational services, according to a press release from the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, which filed the charges in May 2010.

The prosecutor’s press release said Gallon was charged with “conspiring to commit theft by deception, theft by deception as an accomplice, and false swearing.” Kelly and Kemp were charged with “uttering false documents, theft by deception, conspiracy to commit theft by deception and false swearing,” according to the press release.

The allegations involved Gallon, then a South Plainfield resident, declaring under oath that the two assistants and their children lived with him while the children attended a local school, the prosecutor’s office said. The assistants actually lived elsewhere, according to the prosecutor’s office.

The lies allowed the children to attend school in South Plainfield, costing that district $10,500 during a five-month period, after which the children were moved to a school where they actually lived.

After their arrests, Gallon and his two assistants took a deal that allowed them to enter a pretrial intervention program with the condition they never work for New Jersey public schools in exchange for their charges being dismissed, according to New Jersey media reports. Gallon’s two assistants repaid the money, according to a news report in New Jersey.

‘What benefit or gain was there?’

In a statement, Gallon blames his troubles on politics.

“Due to politics I was accused of allowing my two godsons – ages 6 and 7 to reside with me and legally attend school in my area for a brief period of time. Where I’m from we take care of our children and provide shelter and support where needed. I was making $225,000 a year. The parents were making six figures. What benefit or gain was there? There was no ‘theft’ and the school district they were enrolled [in] can attest to that.”

Gallon said he decided to leave New Jersey because of its “slow wheels of justice” and to “attend to my mother whose health was failing.”

He also claimed that “no one was banned from working in New Jersey,” though public records and media reports indicate otherwise.

Following a review by the New Jersey Department of Education’s Board of Examiners Gallon’s administrator certificates were revoked in June 2012. A department document states the board upheld the provision Gallon signed in the “consent agreement” to “never seek nor accept employment in any New Jersey public school or public system.”

In August 2014, a New Jersey state appellate court turned down a request by Gallon’s two assistants, Kelly and Kemp, to revoke the ban prohibiting them from working in state public schools.

After the controversy in New Jersey, Gallon and his company, Tri-Star Leadership, were hired in June 2011 to provide educational services at three charter schools in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, according to a June 2014 story in the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

The paper said that by the end of summer 2012 Gallon had obtained positions for the two associates arrested and banned from working in the New Jersey public schools, made payroll decisions without approval of the three charter school boards and entered into a business with one of the volunteer board members of a charter school.

Despite the controversy surrounding the three schools, state ethics officials found that no laws had been broken.

Two of the three charter schools, Success Academy in Fort Lauderdale and Excel Leadership Academy in West Palm Beach, shut down in the summer of 2013. Miami’s Stellar Leadership Academy remains active.

Gallon said the three schools had management problems before his company was hired. “I had no authority to hire, fire, pay, or even write checks at either school,” Gallon said in his statement.

Nothing “improper or illegal” occurred, he said.

A plan takes shape to fix Miami-Dade’s CRAs

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

FAU professor Frank Schnidman and Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella L. Cava

FAU professor Frank Schnidman and Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella L. Cava

Miami-Dade commissioners would take greater control of community redevelopment agencies under a proposal that would tighten oversight and reduce funding, yet also require many CRAs to set aside dollars for much-needed affordable housing they have yet to provide.

FloridaBulldog.org has obtained a copy of a resolution that’s making its way through county agencies. It is to be presented to Miami-Dade’s Economic Prosperity Committee on April 14 and to commissioners in May. Many of its remedies follow recommendations contained in February’s Miami-Dade Grand Jury report that found operating deficiencies among the 14 CRAS operating in the county, including little effort to develop affordable housing.

The proposal, however, is drawing criticism from a local CRA expert.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough,” said Frank Schnidman, a Florida Atlantic University professor with extensive knowledge of CRAs and how they should operate.

If adopted, the measures would apply to both new CRAs and existing ones that seek to extend or amend their 30-year terms.

Schnidman is opposed to the county granting CRAs any extensions unless they can demonstrate that they’ve been effective in their state-mandated mission of ridding “slum and blight” from within their limited boundaries. He also believes that newly approved CRAs should not receive county tax-increment funding. TIF funds, as they are known, are property tax dollars earmarked to some CRAs from increases in assessed land values within their designated district.

Extending the life of CRAs to finance new or existing projects transforms them into “economic development agencies,” whose purpose is other than eliminating slum and blight, said Schnidman. And CRAs already have demonstrated they have no desire to create much-needed affordable housing for poorer residents, he added.

Nevertheless, discussions are under way to extend the terms of two Miami CRAs – Omni, which hasn’t built any affordable housing, and Southeast Overtown Park West, which has – in order to back both proposed and existing projects.

If extended, the proposed Miami Marriott Marquis Hotel and Expo Center, the Miami Streetcar and Baylink could expect to receive CRA funding for debt service and/or operating and capital expenses. The Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, the Perez Art Museum Miami and the Adrienne Arsht Performing Arts Center stand to receive CRA dollars to cover similar expenses.

Most of those projects are “for the rich,” said Schnidman.

‘No real teeth’

The proposed county resolution would “have some effect but it has no real teeth,” Schnidman said. He noted, for instance, that while it seeks to address affordable housing, it would not require existing CRAs without a housing plan to adopt one. He was also critical because the proposal would continue to allow CRAs to issue bonds to support projects without voter approval.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella L. Cava proffered the resolution.

“I have created a proposal to deal with slum and blight and not just for developers,” she said. “We can’t do anything that is in violation of state law…state law does not require housing.

Cava noted that her resolution provides that there be a finding of “necessity” for approval of new CRAs, added she was interested in Schnidman’s suggestion that CRAs should have to show they have addressed slum and blight before they can get an extension or amendment to their term.

The Miami-Dade Grand Jury issued a scathing report in February about the operations of 14 CRAs that exist under an agreement with the County Commission. The grand jury said CRAs skirted the law’s intent with “overly broad interpretations” of definitions and requirements, by paying for inappropriate things like “fairs, carnivals and community entertainment;” and squandering “… large amounts of taxpayer dollars on what appeared to be pet projects of the elected officials.” Likewise, CRAS allocated a significant amount of funds “on salaries, benefits and other administrative costs.”

But the grand jury’s harshest criticism was aimed at the failure of CRAS to provide affordable housing in the blighted areas they were supposed to assist.

“Our investigation uncovered large scale spending on projects that did not address slum, blight or affordable housing … Evidence presented to us indicates that affordable housing is not a priority for many of the existing CRAs … (and) is almost non-existent.”

County leverage

The proposed resolution would declare the county’s intention to include the new provisions as a condition for approval for any new CRAs and for existing ones seeking extensions. The county has considerable leverage because it provides nearly half the tax-increment funds collected by the 14 CRAs: this year, $32 million in all.

Among the resolutions key provisions is a requirement that new and some existing CRAs have a housing component and a budget that annually includes funds for low, moderate and workforce housing. Existing CRAs without housing provisions in their plans may be able to circumvent the requirement, according to Schnidman.

In a measure aimed at widening CRA oversight, the county commission would appoint two members or designees to each CRA board. The county Inspector General’s Office would be given extensive authority to review all transactions of the CRAs, including actions that allegedly involve “fraud and/or corruption.”

CRAs also would be obliged to demonstrate the benefit of projects by holding a public hearing to consider how they will primarily benefit residents and business owners within the redevelopment area.

On the financial side, CRAs would be subject to a cap on administrative costs of 20 percent and new CRAs would not receive more than 50 percent of tax-increment collections unless commissioners approve a higher amount by a two-thirds vote.

CRA grants of $200,000 or more to community groups would have to primarily benefit residents in the redevelopment area. That would include hiring the labor force from workers within the redevelopment boundaries and allowing the county to recover funds not used for their intended purposes.

Likewise, CRAs would also be required to provide relocation assistance to individuals, families and businesses displaced by its projects. CRAs would also have to provide “one-for-one” replacement of affordable housing units they demolish, with those displaced having the right of first refusal to move back into affordable units.

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