Miami-Dade Public Schools squandered tens of millions of dollars on a mangled construction program, delayed crucial projects by months or even years, and trapped children in schools that are not only crowded, but obsolete, poorly maintained and in some cases downright unsafe, a Herald investigation has found.
Questionable policies, practices and politics have repeatedly hobbled construction in the nation's fourth-largest school system, even as student enrollment soared and the need for new or renovated classrooms bred near-emergencies on campuses across the county.
In North Miami Beach, 170 eighth-graders at John F. Kennedy Middle School pack into the auditorium for social studies. Teachers lecture with a microphone. Students balance notebooks on their knees.
In Little Havana, Miami Senior High wrestles with hundreds of fire and safety hazards on the 75-year-old campus, from busted fire alarms to missing smoke detectors to a decrepit and cracking second-story walkway.
North of Miami Lakes, some students in Palm Springs North Elementary's 20 portable classrooms carry extra shoes to school because lopsided walkways flood with muddy water every time it rains.
Fueled by a $980 million bond referendum, Miami-Dade County Public Schools 15 years ago launched the nation's biggest and most aggressive construction program. But the school district has busted its budget on at least 39 of 44 new schools analyzed by The Herald, or about nine out of 10 since 1988.
Those new schools alone came in at least $117 million over budget - enough money to build 10 new elementary schools.
Renovation projects have been just as troubled, running up millions in unexpected expenses.
Delays on dozens of projects, frequently caused by poor planning or errors made by architects and engineers, have cost the county's students a cumulative 84,951 days as a result of lost construction time.
That's 233 years.
"The productivity of construction and maintenance are the two most important issues facing the district, " said Superintendent Merrett Stierheim, who took over 15 months ago and promises to fix the problems. "I want to turn it around."
What went wrong in a district that has spent $250 million just managing its massive construction program? The Herald's investigation found a series of missteps in every phase of the building process:
* Problems started at the drawing board. The district repeatedly failed to plan and prioritize projects, and allowed principals, curriculum specialists and administrators to haphazardly make changes in designs along the way.
Those demands, in part, drove up architect fees. A 1998 study of construction projects at existing schools found that fees shot up by 38 percent, or more than $16 million. The district also lost thousands of dollars paying architects for some of more than 65 projects that later were delayed, merged with other projects or canceled.
* A series of architect disputes, funding constraints and other mishaps allowed projects to idle for an average of 888 days - or 21/2 years - before contractors were brought in to start building. Thirty projects each sat for 2,000 days or more.
* Even after construction started, frequent and sometimes subjective changes continued to hamper projects. One-third of the changes made during construction were fueled by district staffers allowed to alter projects even as crews were knocking down walls or pouring concrete. Those changes added more than $40 million in costs and 13,140 days in delays.
* Architect and engineering errors also taxed projects during construction, accounting for almost a quarter of the increased costs and more than 9,560 days in lost time. The School Board for years hired architects who had little or no experience in designing schools, and continued to use them even as costs were rising and delays were upsetting schedules.
* The School Board has gone easy on shoddy construction, too, giving more than $228 million in repeat business to at least 21 contractors who delayed jobs, turned in bad work or failed to finish projects.
* After all the delays and rising costs, the system was left with problem buildings. At least 19 suffer from water leaks, cracking stucco and other deficiencies, and district staffers are now checking dozens more.
* At the same time, the district has ignored thousands of dangerous fire and life-safety deficiencies that for years have threatened schools.
Exacerbating the crisis: The school board repeatedly failed to rein in the troubled construction program and made key decisions that often went against the recommendation of the district's top staff.
"This is appalling, " Miami Beach High School Principal Jeanne Friedman fumed as she walked across campus noting roof leaks, a broken air-conditioning system and classrooms that reeked of mildew. "These kids only get one shot around."
There was a time when the school system had a chance to forge ahead.
In 1988, determined to ease crowding and revitalize schools, Miami-Dade County voters approved the bond referendum. Combining that money with other funding, the district had $1.6 billion, a colossal sum for a struggling urban system.
An analysis of financial reports shows that the School Board has actually received almost $6 billion since then to build, repair and maintain schools. The money has poured in through bond proceeds, state construction dollars, property taxes and other sources.
Yet, building has not kept pace.
In 1988, the board promised to build 49 schools and renovate existing campuses. Today, the district boasts that it has opened 64 new schools, but one is a campus entirely of portables, seven were largely paid for before the referendum, and two were simply put into buildings that already existed.
That means the district actually built 54 from scratch. It took the better part of 15 years, far longer than expected, and the district had not just $1.6 billion to spend - but more than 31/2 times that much.
At least nine schools are still waiting for the promised renovations.
"The public has not come close to getting its money's worth, " said Paul Novack, a member of the state-appointed board studying school construction.
District staffers say the school system has delivered a successful program, despite Hurricane Andrew, funding shortages, changes in building codes, and surges in student enrollment. The district has repaired roofs and wired many campuses for technology. Art and music suites have opened. So have new science labs.
Officials also say improvements in recent years have dramatically reduced such things as architect errors and changes during construction.
"Were there problems and difficulties? Of course there were, " said John Pennington, whose office manages construction litigation for the school system. "But the amount of things that didn't get done or didn't get done properly . . . is very small in the scheme of things."
But at dozens of aging campuses, administrators eager to focus on the finer points of curriculum respond instead to roof leaks, busted plumbing and the needs of teachers forced into classrooms too tiny for creative teaching, too obsolete for technology. And crowding is worse than ever.
"I have kids who are eating lunch on the floor, " said Principal Victor Lopez at Miami Senior High, where the cafeteria holds just 450 students. Enrollment this year tops 3,200. "The district will tell you that they're going to take care of it, but we're still waiting."
The school district's construction program stumbled before a shovel hit dirt.
With the new money pouring in, a skeleton crew of district staffers struggled to decide where to build, which companies to hire, what to tackle first.
"We were so consumed with the political controversy in getting the bond referendum passed, we woke up the next morning after it had passed, and we had done nothing to prepare for it, " said Octavio Visiedo, superintendent from 1990 to 1996.
The School Board hired a construction management company to run the program. But after two years and almost $18 million in payments, Visiedo persuaded the board to run the program in-house even though the district had never before taken on a building challenge even remotely close in size.
Visiedo said the decision saved millions. But the change caused major delays.
Bhagwan Gupta, with a background in business and personnel, not construction, was put in charge. The district had only a handful of project managers to oversee job sites. The management company had about 40 people.
"It would have been better to have an outside firm complete those projects, " Gupta says now. ". . . We had to pick up the pieces."
Making things worse, the district allowed curriculum specialists, principals and regional superintendents to regularly weigh in on the design and planning of projects, often paralyzing architects.
The school district needs to be more coordinated and controlled, said architect David Feinberg, who chairs the education committee of the American Institute of Architects in Miami. "There could be more than 10 [educators] involved in a project. . . . They could delay a project for months."
So could parents and community leaders, who frequently demanded costly or time-consuming changes.
Architect fees at some schools skyrocketed. A sampling of 95 projects reviewed by The Herald found that architects working at existing schools were paid average fees that equaled 11 percent of overall construction budgets - meaning that for a $1 million project, architects were paid $110,000. Other large districts generally pay fees for similar projects at between 6 percent and 9 percent.
At some schools, architects were paid fees nearing or even topping 20 percent. The district also lost thousands paying architects for projects that were put on hold, revamped or canceled altogether.
At Miami Jackson Senior High, the district paid at least $220,000 to an architect hired to design a $2.5 million addition and remodeling project in 1996. Four years later, the district scrapped the project and decided to build a new school.
Now, almost seven years later, the district has hired yet another architect.
SLOW TO START
Runaway spending has been only part of the problem.
The school system allowed projects to languish for months or years before contractors were hired to build.
In some cases, the district simply didn't have the money. But in dozens of projects, disputes with architects threw schedules off by months.
Already hundreds of students over capacity, American Senior High waited more than eight years for the district to hire a general contractor for an addition promised during the bond campaign.
The problem: The architect produced flawed designs, according to the district staff.
"It just took forever to finish the drawings, " said Peter de la Horra, executive director of school construction.
Architect Jimmie Allen acknowledged problems with designs and delays at American Senior High. But he said he had problems with engineers who worked with him and added that the district contributed to delays because staff members frequently changed the project's scope.
The problems with some architects were created in part by School Board policy.
During the bond campaign, the board promised to hire architects who had not worked for the system - a push to spread the lucrative work across the community.
"Anybody that had learned how to work with us couldn't get another job [working for the school district], " said Pennington.
In a six-year period, the district worked with 188 architects on 275 projects. The construction staff warned the board that the work was costing up to 15 percent more because smaller firms often charged higher fees. Delays were mounting. And the district was losing money on architects it fired.
The district paid $56,000 to an architect fired from a project at Key Biscayne Elementary and $70,000 to one at Snapper Creek Elementary.
The delays and rising costs kept coming - even after buildings started going up.
Major addition and renovation projects cost an average of 9 percent, or $123,000, more than planned. Those extra costs amounted to more than $17 million, enough to build a new middle school.
District officials point out that the extra money in some cases covered unexpected conditions, such as soil contamination, or pressing repairs that had been put off for years.
But a district audit found that a single person could request a massive change based solely on preference or taste - not necessity. Requests came from board members, principals, community leaders, administrators.
The average project saw a cumulative construction delay of 100 days. Delays at almost 40 projects lasted for more than a year, and 18 were delayed more than 500 days.
"The staff would always say there was bad weather. There was rain, " said board member Perla Tabares Hantman. Rain delays, however, contributed to just 4 percent of lost construction time.
At the packed Glades Middle School, students waited 13 years for a promised science wing. Meanwhile, a principal successfully demanded that the front office be covered with expensive tile.
"I can't imagine how you teach biology without a lab, " parent Susan Kairalla said. "I guess you just sort of conceive of what it would be like to look inside a worm."
Problems with architects and engineers also dogged projects long after construction began.
The $4.2 million project at American Senior High is now seven months behind schedule, largely because of lingering design problems.
Since 1988, the district has paid $30 million in increased construction costs because of mistakes made by architects and engineers. Despite the problems, the board in the early 1990s weakened a policy to charge architects for their errors.
"We should have gone after them, " admits Board Chairman Michael Krop, who has served on the board for 22 years.
At Miami Beach High, a science wing that opened in 1999 leaks every time it rains. District and school staff members say the architect designed the roof with slopes, slants and joints, which quickly became entryways for water. Other issues also contributed.
Brown water has stained the wall behind science teacher Gloria Inclan's periodic table of elements. The drywall until recently was crumbling.
"We had all this corrosion here and nobody did anything, " said Assistant Principal George Pollack.
Inexperienced contractors also bungled projects, but the district for years failed to seek penalties.
At Lawton Chiles Middle, water seeped in through stucco cracks and failed caulking. At Whispering Pines Elementary, improperly sealed spaces above the ceiling allowed moisture and mold into the building, causing air quality problems. At Hialeah Middle School, stucco on a new addition fell off in sheets.
Former Superintendent Visiedo said he wanted to see dozens of contractors fired, sued or charged for mistakes, but said the district's legal staff regularly refused.
"If there was one thing that absolutely drove me to a rage, it was the unwillingness of our legal staff to try to go after these guys, " he said.
Johnny Brown, the board's chief attorney since 1999, said the legal staff could pursue only cases where there was solid evidence.
The school system has charged contractors a total of $2.9 million for delays or incomplete work on completed projects since 1988. That's $207,000 a year.
The district also failed to evaluate contractors before they were hired. And even after contractors botched jobs or left them incomplete, the board gave them more work, sometimes repeatedly.
In 1990, the board hired Roma Construction to build Marjory Stoneman Douglas Elementary. The project was 390 days late, and Roma forfeited $45,000 for pulling out before the work was complete.
Just four years later, the board rehired the company to build Paul Bell Middle - a $14.6 million contract. There the company improperly installed the electrical system, put in the wrong walls and cafeteria floor, turned in two flawed and incomplete classrooms, and failed to finish the concrete work, according to the district, which successfully claimed damages. Officials of Roma could not be reached for comment.
District staff members cite a state law that required school systems to hire the lowest responsible bidder for construction jobs.
But as early as 1994, state law allowed "prequalification" of contractors, though it wasn't required. And districts had the right to reject contractors who had bungled other projects. In 1998, the state started requiring prequalification.
It wasn't until 1999 - 11 years into the construction program - that Miami-Dade County Public Schools started prequalifying.
"Nobody wanted to do it here, " said Carlos Hevia, executive director of construction. "It was like uncharted waters. All of a sudden you were telling somebody they couldn't practice their livelihood."
Now, 15 years after the construction program began, Miami-Dade County has built some of the most expensive schools in Florida, with average costs exceeding those of Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties.
Legal and administrative costs for new schools in Miami-Dade are more than four times the state average. Architect fees are higher than in Broward, Palm Beach and Orange counties, and many other Florida school districts.
Runaway costs at a handful of projects helped drain the district's budget. Northwestern High School in Liberty City, for one, cost more than $84 million, far more than the district has reported.
Almost half the money spent building Paul Bell Middle and Miami Edison Middle, about $34 million, went to architects, engineers, lawyers, consultants and others - not to builders.
Meanwhile, at Citrus Grove Elementary, built in the 1950s, the principal has had to use masking tape to patch holes in old windows he had hoped would be replaced. Ten teachers don't have classrooms of their own.
"We work within the system as best we can, " Principal Robert Russell said. "What else can you do?"