When Boca residents complained, the school district built them a wall – without approval

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The school district built an $140,000 concrete wall around Addison Mizner School in Boca Raton to appease residents concerned about noise from children playing outdoors.
The school district built an $140,000 concrete wall around Addison Mizner School in Boca Raton to appease residents concerned about noise from children playing outdoors.

BOCA RATON — As school district officials rebuilt a Boca Raton elementary school this summer, they quietly gave neighboring homeowners an extra perk: a $140,000, 8-foot privacy wall.

The perimeter wall was not in the school district’s construction plans. And it was not approved by Palm Beach County School Board members.

Yet the 974-foot-long, precast concrete structure went up nonetheless at the request of residents in the neighborhood surrounding Addison Mizner School, school district records show.

District administrators last week asked the school board to approve the expenditure months after the fact, angering board members who said district leaders had violated protocol and covertly steered an extra benefit to residents in an upscale neighborhood.

“What they did was build a wall without the approval and then came to us for the approval,” board member Karen Brill said. “So what would have happened if we had said, 'No?'”

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The county’s public schools rarely build walls between their campuses and the surrounding neighborhoods. Typically, the campuses are enclosed with far less expensive chain-link fences — even in neighborhoods with high crime rates or heavy foot and vehicle traffic.

Though no extra school district money was spent ahead of time, records show district officials in June directed a construction company, Moss and Associates, to proceed with the work.

The school district paid $140,000 to build an 8-foot wall around the campus of Addison Mizner School in Boca Raton.
The school district paid $140,000 to build an 8-foot wall around the campus of Addison Mizner School in Boca Raton.

The wall was built, officials say, to appease residents in the surrounding neighborhood, who complained that the redesigned school’s playground and recreational fields were too close to their property lines.

“There was a community meeting, and there were concerns raised by the neighbors about the noise and the lack of privacy that they would be experiencing,” said Joe Sanches, the district’s new chief operating officer, who was not in office at the time.

Addison Mizner School was for decades an elementary school before being rebuilt this summer as a K-8 school, a $29 million job paid for largely by an increase in the county sales tax approved by voters in 2016.

It sits alongside the well-to-do Palmetto Park West neighborhood, surrounded by single-family ranch style homes, and squarely in the district of School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri.

The fact that an unusual six-figure change was made to accommodate residents in an upscale community prompted complaints about inequitable treatment from two board members who represent less affluent regions of the county.

“This is not right,” School Board member Debra Robinson said at a board meeting last week. “If my neighbors find out there was a $200,000 wall built in Boca, they’re going want a $200,000 wall built in West Palm Beach. Are we going to give it to them?"

“We talk about equity and fairness and yada yada,” she said. “Let’s do some of that.”

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Other schools told 'no' on similar requests

Board member Alexandria Ayala said residents in her predominantly Hispanic district have received very different treatment from district administrators.

“I know that there have been schools in my district who have asked for similar things and the answer was 'No' in similar situations,” she said. “So there always seems to be an answer for how things can work in some places and not in others.”

Frank A. Barbieri, Jr., chairman, Palm Beach County School Board.
Frank A. Barbieri, Jr., chairman, Palm Beach County School Board.

The wall’s construction was authorized during the tenure of former Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy, who stepped down in July. The chief operations officer at the time, Wanda Paul, resigned soon afterward.

Barbieri, who represents the neighborhood on the school board and was chairman throughout the school’s construction, did not respond to a message seeking comment.

At a board meeting last week, new Superintendent Mike Burke — the district’s chief financial officer at the time — acknowledged that “there was a misstep in the process here.”

But he told board members that “the wall has been built, so we need to pay the contractor.” The payment was approved on a 6-1 vote with Robinson dissenting.

Though he admitted the way the wall was constructed violated district protocols, Sanches defended the decision to build as reasonable given the contours of the new school.

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The 996-student campus sits on a relatively small tract of land for a joint elementary-middle school, he said, meaning basketball courts, fields and playground equipment are unusually close to neighboring homes.

“At a bigger campus, you wouldn’t necessarily have kids near the fence when they’re playing,” he said.

Concrete wall built at a few campuses

While a concrete wall is an unusual and expensive solution, he pointed out it wasn’t unprecedented.

The district has constructed walls at a handful of campuses in the past, he said, including at Suncoast High in Riviera Beach, Palm Beach Central High in Wellington and Hope-Centennial Elementary in West Palm Beach.

A homeowner whose property borders Mizner’s campus told The Palm Beach Post that noise from the school had never been a significant problem, and that he was surprised when the district built the wall.

Even stranger, he said, was the decision to install a new chain-link fence outside, separating the wall from his property.

“I just think the wall there’s kind of silly,” said the resident, who declined to give his name.

amarra@pbpost.com

@AMarranara

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: School district spends $140K on wall at Boca's Addison Mizner School

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