The reform school that may never be 

The State of Florida is really mad. Millions were spent unaccountably. Oversight was lax. The inspector general’s report detailing the problems at a proposed private school for tough juvenile delinquents also lays blame with the very lawmakers who made it all possible. ;;This is what happens "when legislation reduces agencies to funding conduits and does not clearly establish accountability and oversight responsibility," Chief Inspector General Harold Lewis writes in the report studying the agreement under which the Adam Paine Academy is being built near Tampa. So far the state has spent about $10 million on the $30 million project. But the rest has been frozen until Gov. Lawton Chiles decides what to do.;;For now, Chiles and Education Commissioner Frank Brogan have agreed that the school’s mission should be changed, says a Chiles spokeswoman. Yet the IG’s report never addresses the school’s mission.;;The real kicker: The school is almost built, and, despite the problems, the people building it have not stolen or squandered any money. ;;"Notwithstanding whatever is in the IG’s report, the buildings are going up, on time and under budget," says Adam Shapiro, acting executive director of Griff Mills Schools, Inc., the company that contracted to build and operate the school in 1995. "We’re under contract to operate a school. We are prepared to operate a school.";;This assumes the Legislature authorizes an additional $2 million to $3 million to buy furniture, books and provisions. Otherwise, Florida, with its perpetually overcrowded juvenile jails, could end up with a 21-building campus in mothballs and nothing to show for three years of work but a passel of lawsuits.;;How did this sorry situation come about? Would you believe politics?;;Three years ago, the Florida Legislature became so enamored with a Pennsylvania reform school called Glen Mills that it decided to build a copy here. David Deming, a vice president at Glen Mills, formed a company to build the Florida school. On his board of directors were five children of the Glen Mills founder, plus lobbyist Samuel "Buddy" Streit, who had helped sell the idea here. The new company, called Griff Mills, was formed with about $1,000 from each director.;;Griff, the only bidder, got the contract to build the school. The state set up an oversight board, called the Alternative Education Institute (AEI), to disburse the $30 million and keep an eye on Griff.;;But AEI had no authority. Griff collected payment for land acquisition, construction management, overhead and other expenses, including "profit." The original investors were paid dividends amounting to 40 times their $7,000 investments. Deming received more than $200,00 in consulting fees.;;Deming says his fee is justified because he was able to steer the $30 million reform school through local zoning. Also, Deming says there would have been no investigation, had he not fired Streit.;;In addition to being on the board of directors, Streit also was a stockholder and consultant who earned $250,000 in 1996. Deming fired him after he took a second job with a competitor called the Brown Schools. According to Deming, Streit had also hired Elaine Gordon, then AEI’s vice chairman, as a Brown Schools lobbyist ("School Busted," Feb. 27). Deming says Gordon tried to get him to rehire Streit, and when he refused, ordered an audit.;;The State Ethics Commission rejected claims that Gordon’s position with the Brown Schools constituted a conflict of interest. Streit would not talk to the inspector general.;;The audits questioned some expenditures, but the overall contract did not forbid any of them. The IG’s most compelling finding -- if alleged malfeasance is the yardstick -- is that Griff officers increased the amount of money due them in the first payment without approval of AEI. Griff documents claim the invoice was approved in the Nov. 13, 1995 meeting, but the minutes of that meeting do not reflect such an approval, and Gordon could not recall approving the changes. ;;The difference between the two documents, in terms of money spent on Griff Mills consultants, corporate management, and profit: $670,754. How did it happen? Griff managed to save $1.4 million in site acquisition costs and rewarded itself. The result? Deming resigned.;;Now the state is in a quandary. Will it punish the school -- and the kids it may help -- for the misdeeds of a star-struck legislature? Will it waste $20 million more in order to teach itself a lesson? Chiles spokeswoman Herrle suggests a third road: redefine the school’s mission and make it a facility for mid-level offenders. Makes as much sense as anything.

More by Ericson, Edward Jr.


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