Tuesday, January 18, 2022

School Board Up Against “The Wall” and Barton Fights To Save Center

Addison Mizner School in Boca Raton cost nearly $30 million. But a $147,000 change order for a wall generated much discussion during the Palm Beach County School Board’s Nov. 17 meeting.

The eight-foot concrete structure serves as a buffer between the north and west sides of the campus and single-family homes in the surrounding neighborhood. Addison Mizner is one of the county’s few neighborhoods schools, and the rebuilt campus will expand in two years to include all middle school grades.

But the wall was a change from the original plan. So the board should have approved the change before construction. That didn’t happen, which is why board member Karen Brill raised it for discussion. Brill said she would vote to approve the payment—there really was no choice—but added, “We shouldn’t be getting items after they’re constructed.”

Then there were the optics:

Board Chairman Frank Barbieri’s district includes Boca Raton. The school is in an affluent neighborhood. Debra Robinson, one of two African-Americans on the board, represents some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods. She noted that homeowners near Addison Mizner had met with school district officials.

“I see a great big, flashing inequity sign,” Robinson said. “This is not right.”

All board members are especially sensitive to construction costs. Money for Addison Mizner came from the 10-year sales tax surcharge that voters approved in 2016. Now, and also for a similar construction program that ran from 2004 until 2010, the district has compiled an enviable record of building projects—Addison Mizner being one—on time and on or under budget. One reason is a citizen oversight committee.

That panel had not reviewed the change order before the wall was finished for the school’s opening in August. According to the staff memo, “leadership” approved the wall. At that time, Donald Fennoy was superintendent. Wanda Paul was chief operating officer, in charge of construction. Both have left the district.

New Superintendent Mike Burke acknowledged that there had been “a misstep.” New COO Joe Sanches agreed but cited what he called “extenuating circumstances.”

There had been disputes with neighbors over property lines. Surveyors had become involved. There also was a problem with underground utilities. Delays could have pushed construction past the August opening date.

Robinson asked Sanches if a concrete wall was the most “cost-effective” approach. Yes, Sanches said, because it blocks sound from the school and increases privacy. Will concrete be the standard? No. Does the wall mean longer walks for Addison Mizner students? No.

Barbieri did not comment during the meeting. On Wednesday, Barbieri told me that he didn’t ask for the wall. During his visits during Addison Mizner’s construction, “I don’t remember noticing it.” Though he received emails from some neighbors, Barbieri said he didn’t know about the meeting or who attended.

Ordinarily, a change order that amounted to roughly 0.5 percent of a school’s cost might not cause any ripples. These days, however, speakers throw unfounded accusations at board members during each meeting. Some of those speakers are running for the board next year. They don’t need any reason to make something reasonable sound unreasonable—or a conspiracy.

Ironically, Barbieri said, the board had approved a new system that makes it harder to have change orders come late. “I don’t want to blame anybody, but it sounds like someone didn’t follow the policy.”

Barbieri added, “This was a mistake, and it casts a shadow. I’m not happy.”

Saving the Barton Center                                        

Photo courtesy of the Wayne Barton Center

Wayne Barton told me Wednesday that he has “made some progress” toward saving his iconic study center in Boca Raton but is not close to his fund-raising goal.

As I reported two weeks ago, the former city police officer took out a $2.5 million loan—just before the pandemic—on the 2.3-acre site that is home to the center. It distributes food to poor residents and helps to educate at-risk youth. Barton said 172 have gone on to college.

The pandemic cut off many sources of revenue for Barton. If he doesn’t raise enough by the end of the year to cover the loan, the center could close.

Barton said, “I’m waiting to see what the community does.” He plans to meet “one-on-one with some high-net worth people.” Private donations are Barton’s only realistic option. The city doesn’t provide anything close to that level of help for non-profits.

The center, Barton said, gives out 100,000 pounds of food a week. “There’s Boca Helping Hands,” he added, “but they can do only so much.”

Though a foreclosure lawsuit has been filed, Barton said the lenders are “being flexible. They want to give me a shot.” I’ll continue to update this story.

Cold case Solved

Photo by kat wilcox from Pexels

On Tuesday, Delray Beach police officials announced an arrest in a 38-year-old murder case. It might not have happened without the personal connection Chief Javaro Sims has to such cases.

This year, Sims created a cold-case unit. In a statement, Sims said he did so because his grandmother was murdered a half-century ago in Boynton Beach, when he was in high school. Despite having a suspect, Sims said, “Police were unable to resolve the case.”

So when Sims had a chance to create the unit, “I figured out a way to make it happen.” The first result came Tuesday with the arrest of 59-year-old Ralph Williams for the killing of 21-year-old Carla Lowe.

According to police, Ms. Lowe had been waiting at the Amtrak station in Delray Beach, preparing to visit family in Tennessee. Members of Ms. Lowe’s family were in Delray Beach for the news conference. They expressed their gratitude to the department.

“I understand how it feels,” Sims said, “to not have closure when it comes losing someone I love. By creating this team, my goal is to bring a level of justice to the victims’ families and make them feel whole again.” 

City to file response to Old School Square lawsuit

old school square
Cornell Art Museum in Old School Square; photo courtesy of the Delray Beach DDA

Delray Beach Mayor Shelley Petrolia, city commissioners Juli Casale and Shirley Johnson and City Attorney Lynn Gelin will file their responses to the Old School Square lawsuit no later than Thursday.

On Nov. 22, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge John Kastrenakes agreed to their requests for more time. In addition to suing the city, Old School Square for the Arts named Petrolia, Casale, Johnson and Gelin individually. Petrolia, Casale and Johnson voted in August to terminate the group’s lease for Old School Square.

The suit also names former Old School Square Board Chairwoman Joy Howell. She has retained separate counsel. There is no record of former Old School Square Executive Director Shannon Eadon, whom the litigation also named, having hired an attorney.

Ocean Strand park plan reviewed                 

At tonight’s meeting, the Boca Raton Planning and Zoning Board will review the plan for a park on the Ocean Strand property.

The Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District, which owns the vacant 15 acres south of Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, wants to build an eight-foot-wide asphalt walkway and picnic tables. The district also would remove some non-native vegetation.

The park would be accessible only by walking or biking. A rack would have space for seven bicycles. Given the minimalist nature of the plan, city staff recommends that the board approve the site plan. It then would go to the city council.

Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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