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Under Budget Microscope, Florida School Boards Find Mismanagement

BRADENTON -- The Palm Beach County School Board wants to police itself. It feels that a modified version of it's in-house audit department can successfully correct the mismanagement, lack of oversight and accountability that has led to criminal conduct of the past.

Struggling with a blend of corruption and incompetence, they are not alone. School districts throughout Florida -- many having billion dollar budgets, thousands of employees, and dozens of properties -- are finding major problems as tighter and tighter budgets raise more and more questions about where the money goes. But ironically, less resources can mean less policing. The oversight of construction bids alone can be crippled by declining budgets, creating even more opportunities for rogue back-door deals and fraud.

The Broward County School Board is perhaps the poster child of such activities. Deemed "officially corrupt" by a Florida Grand Jury, in the past 10 years Broward has seen billions of dollars dished out to a select group of contractors, leaving the school board with a two billion dollar debt. Charges of deliberately building unnecessary schools, has climbed all the way to the superintendent's office and led to the arrest of board members, along with one of their spouses. Though the grand jury did not make any direct accusations, it said that the district is victim to "malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance."

In Polk County, the school board's assistant superintendent pleaded guilty to taking bribes for handing out construction projects.

Many county school boards in Florida are familiar with predicaments of fraud and malfeasance and often their internal oversight committees are reluctant to pursue higher ranked officials or even prosecute wrongdoers. Criticism and misconduct within the school system is more condemnatory than many other departments of government, and for good reason, they are suppose to be responsible for teaching the community's children.

The Palm Beach County School Board's efforts to dismiss the county's "Inspector General's Office's" proposal to form an independent "Ethics Committee" may not succeed. If the goal is to restore public trust in a tarnished system, outside objectivity may be essential. And if other counties choose to pursue a similar course, with a sincere will to better their commitment to the public, it may prove prudent and worthwhile.


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