District to tighten purchases of land
Steps are announced in response to Times findings of overpayments for school sites.
By MELANIE AVE
Published March 15, 2006
TAMPA - Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia announced numerous plans Tuesday to tighten the district's land acquisition procedures in light of a St. Petersburg Times investigation showing the district often overpays for school sites.
"I think there's no question we have some things that we need to do," Elia told School Board members at the end of their meeting.
The changes were described after board members told administrators to research the steps necessary to ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax to build and renovate schools. The district is trying to keep up with enrollment growth that is averaging 5,400 students a year.
School officials have long relied on a small number of hand-picked real estate brokers to help them find land for schools and negotiate prices. They did not have contracts and their work was never advertised so others could compete.
A Times investigation this week of hundreds of district land acquisitions showed one broker, working with secret land trusts, flipped properties to school officials for a large markup. The district has asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the transactions.
"We will be very aggressive in that," Elia said.
She said the district already has made several changes, such as requiring real estate brokers to submit formal proposals before getting work. But others are planned, including:
Improving the district's tracking of work and payments to outside professionals. District officials can't say how much they have paid to brokers, who typically receive a 3 percent commission on purchase prices.
Surveying other fast-growing Florida school districts to see if their successful land-buying practices can be replicated in Hillsborough. "We need to be smart and learn from them," Elia said.
Establishing a land acquisition advisory group of professionals to guide the district on when and how it should hire outside experts.
Better informing board members about appraisals for land the district is purchasing and providing estimates on how much it will cost the district to make the property suitable for schools.
Elia said she didn't agree with everything in the Times series. She said she intends to provide information about some of the transactions that indicate the district got better deals than what was detailed.
Board member Candy Olson said the district should make its selection procedures as transparent as possible.
She also asked for more detailed information about future land purchases.
"When I get information about buying land in the future, I'm going to want to see any and all appraisals that we've had," Olson said.
Before the discussion about the changes, board members gave Elia permission to plan for a referendum if state lawmakers and county commissioners don't come through with enough money to fund a $419-million construction shortfall expected by 2010.
"It's a way for us to be proactive," said board member Susan Valdes. A sales tax, she said, "would be in my opinion the very last resort."
The board doesn't plan to decide whether to seek the referendum until the end of the legislative session.
Olson said she hopes county commissioners will raise fees on developers that will offset school construction costs and lawmakers will provide more construction funding as well.
Depending on what the other elected bodies do, "we should think about waiting a year or more and showing the voters how responsibly we can spend those dollars," Olson said.
"We have to get better. We have to show people that we understand as a public entity we have to do our very best to spend every penny as wisely as possible."
Melanie Ave can be reached at 813 226-3400 or firstname.lastname@example.org
[Last modified March 15, 2006, 01:31:19]
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