A $25 million project to build a Montessori school in Hollywood wasn't needed but was pushed through in secret meetings by former school board member Jennifer Gottlieb, according to recently released grand jury reports.
Beachside Montessori Village was built with taxpayers' money despite the fact that nearby schools were under-enrolled and it wasn't needed, the reports show. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement reported that the school was pushed through by Gottlieb -- whose children now attend the school -- and that it was known as "Jen's baby."
"She (Gottlieb) made sure it happened," said Charlotte Greenbarg, a school board audit committee member who was interviewed by investigators. "They didn't even need an elementary school in that area because they had empty schools. They had empty seats."
The FDLE found that the school was pushed through despite the lack of need and when the contractor, Padula & Wadsworth, was fired for a litany of reasons -- including hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost increases -- Gottlieb personally demanded that Padula be rehired.
The school board project manager for the school, Robert Sharps, testified that Gottlieb called a meeting at the school site with him and then-school construction chief Michael Garretson.
"Mr. Sharps stated that he was mandated to attend a meeting with Mr. Garretson and Ms. Gottlieb," investigators wrote. "At the meeting, Mr. Sharps stated he was told by both Mr. Garretson and Ms. Gottlieb that Padula and Wadsworth would not be removed from the contract. Mr. Sharps stated that Ms. Gottlieb spoke to him concerning her children attending this Montessori school."
According to the FDLE, the late Garretson told Sharps "what a board member wants, a board member gets."
Gottlieb's children now attend the school. The grand jury also found that an enrollment meeting for the school was held not in a public building but in a private home across town and wasn't noticed to the public.
Though Beachside was built in a racially diverse, working-class neighborhood, the school is now one of the whitest schools in Broward, with only 22 percent minority students.
Hollywood Commissioner Heidi O'Sheehan testified that the school's admission policies are discriminatory. She told the FDLE that Beachside's pre-K costs $135 a week and those children whose families can pay are automatically accepted while those that cannot, many of them minorities, are excluded from the school.
She also noted that Gottlieb's kids were accepted into the school, as were Mayor Peter Bober's children and those of other city officials.
"Ms. O’Sheehan stated she believed this requirement is discriminatory as the cost would preclude many Hollywood residents from having their children attend the school due to economic reasons.into the school," investigators wrote.
O'Sheehan filed a civil rights complaint against the school with the U.S. Department of Education because she believes it has an "elitist atmosphere" for "upper class, well to do white kids.” The school recently had the third-highest FCAT scores of a
Resident Pete Brewer agrees, saying that many of the children in his neighborhood can't attend the school because they are "the wrong color." Brewer is also upset because the school was built on land that used to be Lincoln Park, the only park in the neighborhood. The park is now little more than a glorified sidewalk despite promises from the city that it would be saved.
"They stole our park from us," said Brewer.
Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said the enrollment and admissions process at Beachside Montessori Village will be reviewed.
"It is something that we are going to look at because we must have fairness and equity in the enrollment and admissions process in our schools," said Runcie. "We're going to make that happen."