Missteps fuel crowding crisis

 

Miami Herald Staff

Math teacher Edwyn Claude plunges through the halls of one of Miami-Dade County's most crowded middle schools with his classroom stuffed into a 30-pound suitcase. Again and again, he sets up in borrowed rooms.

"If I had a classroom, I'd decorate it the way I'd like, green, because it kind of keeps the kids awake and it's psychologically proven, " said Claude, a first-year teacher at John F. Kennedy Middle. "And anyone could walk in and know that they're in a math class." But there is no classroom for Claude. Fifteen years after Miami-Dade Public Schools launched what was then the nation's biggest school construction campaign, a crowding crisis worse than ever chokes the district.

The district built 54 regular elementary, middle and high schools since 1988, but most opened with dozens and sometimes hundreds more students than seats, sending administrators on a scramble for space, teachers and supplies.

And at older schools such as Kennedy Middle, at 1075 NE 167th St., the gap between students and seats has grown dramatically worse.

Yet, it happened when the School Board had billions of dollars to spend.

In 1988, the board promised to "meet essentially all of its new construction" needs over five years with the passage of a bond referendum worth $980 million.

The district has actually received almost $6 billion since then through a combination of bond money, tax dollars and other sources.

But the district's campuses are still among the most packed in the nation.

Twenty-two percent of public schools in the United States wrestle with crowding. In Miami-Dade County, the nation's fourth-largest district, it's 66 percent.

No school district can control how fast communities grow, but a Herald investigation found that questionable policies and costly miscalculations helped fuel the crisis.

Consider:
* Since 1988, the school district spent just one-fifth of the $6 billion on new school construction. Thirteen percent was funnelled into major school additions and renovations, but some of those projects added extras such as administrative offices, not classrooms. Critics say the district should have sunk more money into space for students.

* In a county that grew by more than 92,000 students and is chronically short on land, the School Board opted to build schools smaller than needed. The board wagered that population shifts years from now would ease crowding, leaving behind a fleet of smaller, more suitable schools. But that decision relegated a generation of students to packed campuses.

Of more than 30 new elementary schools built for 885 students each, all but about 10 opened overcrowded.

* The district largely failed to track enrollment patterns that would gauge where new schools were needed most, and how many students would show up when they opened. The board in the mid-1990s dismantled the planning office that analyzed growth.

Though the district built a majority of new schools in high-growth areas, at least nine opened in areas that grew far less quickly or had no growth at all. New schools, meanwhile, were often overwhelmed by unexpected surges in students. * The district's building cycle is painfully slow. Crucial projects languished an average of 888 days before contractors were ever hired to start construction, often because of architect disputes or repeated planning changes. And even after contractors were hired, delays postponed some projects by months or even years.

* Money that could have been used to build more schools was gobbled up by projects that came in way over budget. New schools alone came in at least $117 million over estimates - enough to build another 10 elementary schools.

Longtime school facilities chief Paul Phillips argues that the problem is one of runaway growth and a lack of money, not a lack of management.

Less than 25 percent of school construction money comes from the state, forcing rapidly-growing systems such as Miami-Dade's to come up with tens of millions of dollars. "We knew as soon as we built a school it would be overcrowded, " said Phillips, who retired two years ago. "There was no light at the end of the tunnel. There was not enough land and not enough money."

But Schools Superintendent Merrett Stierheim says the district didn't produce schools fast enough and lacked strong planning. Last June, his staff took a recommendation to the School Board to build bigger schools. And now he's working to overhaul the district's construction program, hoping a series of changes will help the district build more quickly.

"Construction was a mess, " said Stierheim, who took the job 15 months ago. "It was a big, big mess."

BOND INADEQUATE

Miami-Dade County Schools is one of the fastest-growing districts in the nation. Between 1990 and 2000, student enrollment ballooned by 92,000 students. That equals the number of public-school students in Wyoming.

Other Florida school systems, including Broward, Palm Beach and Orange counties, also saw some of the nation's highest growth rates. Florida's schools estimate needing at least $11 billion over the next five years for new classrooms. "We've been able to keep pace with growth but never catch up, " said Richard Hinds, Miami-Dade Public Schools' chief financial officer.

Today, district officials admit that the $980 million bond referendum wasn't nearly enough.

But in 1988, bond backers feared the referendum wouldn't pass, so they kept the price down while promising to meet most needs.

"There was an artificial effort to hold it under the $1 billion mark, " said School Board member Frank Bolaños. "I think a lot of people were foreseeing a larger need but were afraid to present a larger bond referendum to the public."

Now, schools are packed, teachers are overwhelmed and parents are furious. In 1991, the district was short 75,734 permanent seats. By 1996, the gap had grown to 83,520.

In 2002, after years of building, the district was officially short an estimated 55,000 seats, but the actual number is likely much higher. The state several years ago changed the way it counts space in schools, making it appear that Miami-Dade County has thousands more seats than it actually does.

Now, at lunchtime at Miami Senior High, some students squat over cardboard boxes because tables in the cafeteria are packed.

At Palm Springs North Elementary, media specialist Roland Adames last year kept the center open two nights a week so students could borrow books. Just 130 students could fit into the media center, even though the school has more than 1,400.

Kennedy Middle got a 310-seat addition in 1999, but the school still has 2,150 students on a campus built for about 1,000. Kennedy is the second-most crowded middle school in Florida.

"It can get hectic, " said Claude. "But I've got to find a way to deal with it."

FUNDS DISTRIBUTION

Despite the growing space crunch, the School Board opted to spend just $1.2 billion on new-school construction, about one-fifth of the money available to build, repair and maintain campuses.

Millions more was spent on additions and renovations, but dozens of projects added new administrative offices, counseling suites, updated libraries, labs and fine arts rooms, teachers' lounges and parking lots.

"That's not something that my administration can wash its hands of, " said Octavio Visiedo, superintendent from 1990 to 1996.

Visiedo said the board made specific promises during the bond campaign for additions such as art and music suites. More classrooms were needed, he said, but if plans changed, parents complained.

District staff also say the state has a say in where and when school systems can add new classrooms. And they say millions of dollars had to be spent upgrading existing schools and adding essentials such as new roofs and modern technology.

Parents say the district should have spent more money on new classrooms. Citrus Grove Elementary has a new administrative suite, a computer lab and some resource rooms, all part of the bond program.

But the school, built in the 1950s, has 13 portable classrooms. Several are so old, the wood frames have rotted. The media center can barely accommodate two classes. The stage is used for storage.

"What we really needed were classrooms, " School Board member Marta Pérez said.

OPENING TO CROWDS

New schools didn't fare much better - a majority were sideswiped by crowding as early as opening day.

In western Miami-Dade, Braddock High opened in 1990 with about 3,800 students, 800 more than the school's building capacity. North of Miami Lakes, Joella Good Elementary opened in 1990 at 350 students over capacity. Near west Kendall, Howard Doolin Middle opened with about 400 students too many.

Education experts are increasingly pushing for smaller schools, but some parents say the School Board should have built campuses that matched the needs of a growing community.

In the bustling neighborhoods of northwest Miami-Dade, Christopher McCarthy spent six years squeezed into Palm Springs North Elementary. He studied state capitols in a cramped portable classroom, took gym in a backyard without a ball field and shared a computer in a lab often too small for his class. Middle school was supposed to be different. Lawton Chiles Middle School opened three years ago on a sprawling campus without a single portable.

But more than 1,400 students showed up for class that year, about 100 more than the school's building capacity. By the second year, enrollment surged to almost 1,900 - 600 over capacity. Students crammed into storage rooms and offices, and 12-year-old Christopher in the first days of school sprinted to his packed civics class in case he couldn't find a desk.

"This school opened overcrowded. There should have been portables sitting there before the school opened up, " said Christopher's mother, Diana. "Somebody dropped the ball." Last June, the board voted to build bigger schools: elementary schools for 1,500 students, middle schools for 2,100 and high schools for 3,600.

Pérez said she doesn't like the idea but she voted for it because she wants to quickly ease crowding.

"We're put in a very difficult position, because this isn't ideal, " she says. "But [the district staff] comes to us and and tells us this is all because of the mistakes of the past and that this is the best we can do for students. . . . It's always like an urgency and an emergency."

The Legislature this year started requiring smaller schools, but Miami-Dade has permission to build larger campuses, and later break them up into smaller schools. "Even though the concept of smaller schools is great, Okaloosa County can do that, not Dade, Broward, Orange and other high-growth counties, " said Victor Alonso, with the district's planning office.

NOT WATCHING TRENDS

The School Board also failed to sink time and money into researching enrollment patterns.

In the mid-1990s, about seven years into the construction program, the district dismantled its advanced planning office. Phillips, former facilities chief, said he did it to save money. District staff say that was a mistake.

When Suzanne Marshall took over as facilities chief two years ago, she quickly made changes.

"I went in and said, 'Who's looking at demographics?' Nobody. 'Who's integrating with county and local government [planners]?' Nobody, " she said. "That's advanced planning and that's what we're trying to put in place now."

Planning might have guided staffers as they decided where to build new schools. Since 1988, the district built nine in areas that grew at a slower pace than the rest of the county. Planning also could have helped schools such as Lawton Chiles Middle, which had to wait several months before portable classrooms arrived to ease crowding.

And planning could have more quickly helped Felix Varela High, which opened in 2000 and already is almost 2,000 students over its building capacity. Now, long after construction crews have gone, the district is spending $3.3 million to build a 22-classroom addition at the new school.

"I'm not sure the district predicted that the area would grow as fast as it did, " said Peter de la Horra, executive director of school construction.

Stierheim set up a planning office last year.

SPEED AND EFFICIENCY

No other change is more crucial, parents and school officials say, than building faster. And for less money.

Some construction projects idled for years before contractors were hired. And once the work started, delays at job sites cost the county's schoolchildren more than 80,000 days in lost construction time.

"Our projects have taken too long, " said School Board Chairman Michael Krop. "It's unconscionable."

The district busted its budget on 39 of 44 new schools analyzed by the Herald, or roughly nine out of 10 since 1988. In addition to new schools, the district has built 14 smaller buildings, called primary learning centers, seven alternative schools and a number of school additions.

But the new construction has overwhelmingly failed to relieve crowding on Miami-Dade's campuses. Help for schools such as Kennedy Middle and Lawton Chiles Middle, meanwhile, could be months or years away.

Money is tight. State funding for construction is shrinking. Miami-Dade County Schools received $62 million in 1992-93; last year, just $27 million.

The school district may soon be unable to take out loans for construction, unless tax revenues increase. Even when the district has taken out loans, the lack of front-end planning has at times caused problems.

The district in 2001 borrowed $25 million to renovate and build an addition at Miami Springs Senior, but work is on hold as the district and community decide how to do it. Not a room has been built, but the district has paid $641,000 in interest on the loan.

Some district staffers are cautiously discussing the possibility of another bond referendum. But board member Bolaños fears it won't float. "Some folks wish that the mistakes of the past either had not happened or that they could just sweep those mistakes under the rug, " he said. "But the fact is that the School Board has too many black eyes, and I don't think we've done enough to convince the general public that the house has been cleaned."

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