Leave it to Disney 


As Walt Disney World's technical director of global engineering, Bill Kivler spends his days on issues like keeping "Space Mountain" ice cold and making sure "Pirates of the Caribbean" is sufficiently dark and not leaking water.

Since early 2002, however, he's been spending a lot of time as a Disney-funded consultant for the Orange County School Board, which raises some interesting questions: Why is Kivler -- who has no formal experience in school facilities -- restructuring the department and eliminating jobs? Does his involvement constitute a conflict of interest, given that his employer -- Disney -- stands to benefit handsomely if Orange County voters approve a Sept. 10 sales tax referendum to build more schools?

Orange County School Superintendent Ron Blocker recruited Kivler, and four other Disney employees, to act as consultants for the Facilities department. Blocker and other school officials have worked tirelessly to convince voters that the sales-tax revenue won't be squandered on plush administrative offices while overcrowded schools are ignored.

The district's image has been a problem in the past and is a big reason why voters have rejected six sales-tax hikes in the last 20 years. If voters say no again, the district's budget deficit will grow, and Orange County could see year-round school and increasingly crowded classrooms.

Blocker was thinking ahead to the referendum -- and calculating all the positive public-relations the district would get in the bargain -- when he asked Kivler to lend a hand for a year.

"It's not so much that there were problems," Blocker says. "We wanted to make sure we were operating in an efficient manner. We'll have one of the most aggressive capital-improvement programs going on nationally `if the tax passes`. We wanted to make sure we have all the pieces in place. That was the whole philosophy `in` asking Disney to get involved. It was their job to say, Ã?This is how you can do better.'"

Kivler, however, has all but taken over; so much so, that some department heads fear for their jobs. "I have trouble staying busy," says one manager, who asked that his name not be used. "I really do. `Kivler` worked it in a vacuum. He refused to talk to anybody who knew what was going on. I've kind of been kept in the back room."

Their fears are understandable. After reorganizing the department, Kivler eliminated seven of 27 positions, including two people whose job it was to apply for the building permits needed to construct new schools or renovate old ones. He also forced department administrators to reapply for their jobs, opening the positions to outside applicants in the process.

Kivler also rewrote the district's construction spending priorities, putting extra capacity at the top of the list. Prior to his arrival, things like a school's "curb appeal" and whether or not it is wired for technology were taken into consideration in determining how much money to spend, and when. Under Kivler's standards, brand-new overcrowded schools can rate higher on the priority list than their older, more decrepit counterparts. In at least two cases, schools eligible for federal grant money to make improvements ended up at the bottom of the list.

Kivler defends the changes he has made. Personnel was a mess, he says, because people were not doing what they were good at. "I want people to apply for the job they're best suited for," he says. "There were people who were doing the wrong thing."

As for the building priorities, curb appeal doesn't count when the district is cash-strapped, he says. Money for improving a school's technology infrastructure should come from somewhere else, he adds.

Which leaves the question of a conflict of interest. If the sales tax passes, it will include a property-tax rollback that will save owners of homes valued at $125,000 about $50 per year. Large landowners, such as Disney and Universal Orlando, stand to benefit big time. One estimate puts Disney's savings at $32 million to $50 million during the 13-year life of the sales tax. So there's good reason for Disney to want the sales tax to pass.

"What a cynical picture," says a school bureaucrat, who also asked not to be named. "Disney, who has been in major financial distress, supports a referendum that will bring in millions of dollars to the company, decides how to control the expenditure of these funds. This group, who is accomplished at theme-park and hotel development, has convinced elected officials that they are experts in educational design and construction."

Kivler says administrators are worrying about their jobs needlessly. "I'm not going to stay here," he notes. "I'm going to leave."

Nonetheless, a lot of applicants have been vying for the Facilities jobs. And that, of course, has the rumor mill working overtime that Disney workers are replacing facilities administrators en masse. (School board officials laugh off this particular conspiracy theory.)

Kivler is also a member of the school district's Construction Oversight and Value Engineering committee, whose job it is to vet the district's construction plans and make sure they don't get ripped off by contractors.

But it's in his restructuring of the Facilities department that Kivler will make a lasting impact. Department managers say his changes have crippled their ability to get the construction projects under way, if voters do approve the $2 billion referendum.

And if Kivler has a game plan, he's not saying.


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