margaret-bates_web.jpgSeeking to encourage South Florida’s low-income and minority students to enroll in college-level mathematics, science and engineering programs, a non-profit foundation recently gave $15,000 to a black elected officials group to create scholarships.

At a gala on March 1 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood,  PBSJ Foundation, Inc. presented the Broward Black Elected Officials (BBEO) with the endowment for the PBSJ Merit Scholarship Program.

“PBSJ [Corporation] recognized the deficiency in our community when it comes to the sciences and engineering,” said M. Margaret Bates, a Lauderhill city commissioner and BBEO’s president. “And this is their way of giving back.”

The PBSJ Foundation was established to further evolve and elevate the corporation’s philanthropic efforts.  The foundation provides scholarships and grants for community and educational programs across the nation.

The PBSJ Corporation is an employee-owned family of businesses with expertise in engineering, environmental science, architecture, planning and construction.

The funding is aimed at providing scholarships for graduating seniors who are excelling in math and science, “and would probably want to become engineers,” said Hayward Benson Jr., Lauderhill’s vice mayor and BBEO’s treasurer.

Applications for the scholarship are open to all high school students in Broward County who attend either public or private schools, Benson said.

The $15,000 will be awarded in sums of $2,500 to two students each year for three years, Bates said. The scholarships are renewable the following year to the original recipients, or can be awarded to additional students.

PBSJ has made a commitment to extend the partnership beyond the scholarship, said Shannon Ighodaro, PBSJ’s South Florida Community Relations coordinator.

“We will work directly with the students through both mentorship and internship programs,’’ Ighodaro said. “The students can certainly benefit much more from that.”

Benson said that the BBEO has set up a trust for the monies received, and is working with the Baccalaureate Committee.

When applying for a scholarship, students must submit a portfolio that includes their academic achievements, community involvement, leadership activities, extracurricular activities, awards, accomplishments and recognitions.

“They need to write a one-page essay describing how the scholarship will help them in advancing their goals,” Benson added. “And in each category, they will provide their transcripts or report card showing their GPA.”

The data is then given to the Baccalaureate Group’s screening committee, who will make their recommendations, Benson said.

“Criteria were given to us by PBSJ, who will review the applicant’s science and math scores, and their desire to enter into engineering,” Bates said.

The BBEO’s efforts to provide college scholarships have met with controversy in the recent past.

In August 2008, the South Florida Times, in an award-winning series of articles, reported that – according to BBEO’s financial records – more than 70 percent of the money the group raised in 2005 for charitable donations was spent on a lavish party.

That year, BBEO took in $145,675 solicited in the name of college scholarships, and $103,335.53 of that money was spent on its annual gala.

After an eight-month investigation into the alleged financial improprieties, the Broward State Attorney’s
Office closed the probe without filing criminal charges. The State Attorney’s Office concluded that, although BBEO officials did not commit any crime, they did raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in the name of scholarships, and spent all but $15,000 of it on galas.

In the wake of the investigation and news reports, BBEO’s former president, former Lauderdale Lakes Commissioner Levoyd Williams, did not seek re-election to his BBEO post. Williams later resigned from his city commission seat to run for mayor, but he did not win that election.

“The BBEO has raised monies with the intent of giving scholarships, and that’s what we have done,” Benson said. “Our objective is to move forthrightly, and that’s what we are doing. Our books are open for review; I don’t have any problem with that.”

Benson said the BBEO “has certainly overcome the negativity. I hope that we are all bold enough to look at what we are doing now as a positive impact on the future of young people within our communities.”

Photo: M. Margaret Bates