At beach high, when it rains it pours

 

Miami Herald Staff

The roof leaks, the air conditioning chronically malfunctions and corroded plumbing in bathrooms sends the stench of urine into the hallways.

So when it came time four years ago to open a new building at Miami Beach Senior High - 12,000 square feet of slick floors, apple-red lockers and high-tech classrooms - teachers and students eagerly settled in.

Then it rained.

Within weeks, water coursed into the building through the roof, windows and doors, rotting electrical wire and drywall. The bathroom ceilings collapsed. Leaks in Gloria Inclan's chemistry class destroyed a dozen computers.

The 890 lockers have never been used. They cost an estimated $30,000, but students at Miami Beach are not allowed to use them for security reasons.

Last spring, custodians planting bushes struck electrical wire buried just two inches beneath the dirt and blew the power.

"This is a new building, " fumed Assistant Principal George Pollack earlier this school year. "This shouldn't have happened."

Miami Beach High's struggle to educate students on a haggard and outdated campus is an alarming example of how Miami-Dade Public Schools' 15-year-old, $6 billion building program failed communities waiting for newer, safer, less crowded schools.

School board inertia and frustrating building delays have stifled progress at Miami Beach High. And new construction, which should have brought relief, instead delivered more problems.

Districtwide, at least 19 new buildings suffer from ongoing deficiencies including cracking stucco and extensive water leaks, which can create mold and mildew. The district's staff are checking dozens more buildings now. Instead of calling back architects or contractors, the school district in dozens of cases relied on its own overwhelmed maintenance force to fix the problems, which steals time from the upkeep of schools. Today, Miami Beach High is crumbling.

It is a campus where water stains streak dingy stairwells, the clocks tell the wrong time, electrical wire dangles from the ceiling, rainwater floods un-level outdoor hallways, light fixtures have rusted and holes mar classroom walls.

Pollack has a tool set stashed in his desk. He scrambles across campus with a walkie-talkie at his ear, a math teacher turned go-to man, juggling building breakdowns. "It's like no one pays attention to us, " said Alan Cook, a linebacker on the football team. "You kind of feel like if they don't care, why should we?"

Miami Beach High is now scheduled for massive construction, costing an estimated $51.5 million. But planning for the project has taken more than 30 months and construction won't start for at least a year and a half.

Students who were 14-year-old freshmen when the planning began will be in college by the time the first nail is hit.

"My kids have loved it here and they've had excellent teachers, " said Kathy Bass, co-president of the PTA. "But when I see the filth here, it's just an embarrassment. "This school has been held together with duct tape."

FIREFIGHTERS CALLED

Case in point: On a humid morning last fall, three firefighters stormed the school's cafeteria.

A kitchen worker tried to plug a food warmer into an electrical outlet when sparks shot five feet into the air. She leapt back and shouted for help. Minutes later, Lt. Jack Richardson with Miami Beach Fire Rescue pried the burned outlet cover off the wall. The outlet sparked a second time, and he jumped from the flames.

"I should be in classrooms doing observations. I should be creating a learning environment to meet the needs of the kids, " said Principal Jeanne Friedman, who has been pushing for repairs. For years, school district life-safety inspectors have cited hazards at the school, ranging from blocked exits and missing fire extinguishers to combustible wall coverings and drapes. A Herald analysis shows 364 life-safety citations at the school have still not been fixed, including almost 200 that involve fire-safety issues.

The campus has also suffered from unusual wear-and-tear.

Blocks from the ocean, salt in the air and in the water underground rotted some plumbing and electrical systems. The campus serves double-duty as both a high school and large adult education center.

Today, hairline cracks impair every roof on campus. When it rains, the custodial staff, recently forced to cut four of 19 workers, arrives before daybreak to mop up classrooms. Founded 76 years ago, Miami Beach High has a proud reputation of producing graduates who have become judges, artists, athletes and politicians. Alumni include actor Andy Garcia and former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

In recent years, the school has nurtured an award-winning Rock Ensemble and successful business program.

"I have some amazing teachers. The education here is equal to anybody else's, " senior Andrea Terris said.

But parents and community leaders question how a school district with billions of dollars to spend on construction, renovation and maintenance could allow the campus to spiral into a dangerous state of disrepair.

"The district has systematically ignored the conditions of its facilities. . . . There are 20 years of [repair requests] here that are unanswered, " said Paul Novack, a member of a state oversight board studying school construction and a 1976 graduate.

"These buildings would not pass inspection if they were warehouses with no human beings in them."

School district officials say the problem is not neglect - it's money. Dozens of Miami-Dade County public schools have similar problems.

"Every single school that you walk into needs major repairs and renovations. The needs are so great across the entire district, " said Peter de la Horra, executive director of construction.

Miami Beach High parents, however, say the repair delays were not just irresponsible, but dangerous.

In 2000, Novack and three other parents filed suit against the school board, charging the district ignored fire-safety violations at Miami Beach High and at 200 schools across the county.

Through 2003, the School Board has earmarked more than $70 million to fix the violations, including dozens at Miami Beach Senior. But problems persist.

For years, old fire alarms at Miami Beach High were missing levers to pull in an emergency. Instead of installing new ones, the school district covered the boxes and painted them to match the walls.

"It was a cheap way of hiding the problems, " said Luis Garcia Jr., a Miami Beach city commissioner and former fire department chief.

A $980 million bond referendum for school construction in 1988 was supposed to bring upgrades to Miami Beach Senior. The school was slated not only for renovations but the construction of a new wing for science and fine arts. There were plans to replace the clocks. Repair the gym bleachers. Improve the lighting. Fix the fire alarm system.

Right from the start, however, the project was riddled with problems.

An architect was hired to design the project in May 1991, but construction didn't start until 1997, six years later. School district officials say they don't know what caused the delay.

"I was always disturbed by it because I was told, 'It's going to start soon.' I wanted to get it done already, " said School Board Chairman Michael Krop, whose district includes Miami Beach High.

ADDED DELAYS

In the last 15 years, the district's construction projects sat an average of 888 days - or more than two years - before contractors were hired to start construction.

When construction finally began at Miami Beach High, delays held up the project another 211 days.

When the project was completed in the summer of 1999 - almost a decade after planning began - the gym bleachers and many clocks were not fixed. The fire alarm system received only minor repairs.

"As a parent, you sit there with your fingers crossed and wonder, am I going to be here listening to my grandchildren talk about how they need a new school?" PTA member Ondrea Weinkle said.

The new addition, built with modern science labs and equipment, immediately broke down.

A district inspection in June 1999 found ceiling leaks in the new classrooms and water streaming through back doors. The windows leaked, too.

When an inspector returned a year later, after students had moved into the building, the leaks had not been fixed.

John Pennington, who oversees construction litigation for the school system, said the leaks were largely the result of bad roofing materials. The manufacturer has since fixed the problem.

But it took the district at least two years to get the corrections done, and the roof is still leaking. Besides the bad materials, the roof was designed with slants, slopes and dozens of joints, which quickly became entryways for water. Pollack, the assistant principal, said the district's maintenance staff has tried to fix the roof at least seven times, and questions why the contractor or architect didn't do it. Said Pennington: "I don't know the answer to that. I don't know that anybody does."

The project architect, Glenn Buff & Partners, did not return repeated calls. The general contractor, F&L Construction, said the roof was installed properly but the materials and design were faulty.

"I'm not particularly fond of the design myself, " said Delio Trasobares, who oversaw the project for F&L. He no longer works for the company. "We can only do what we were told by plans."

Trasobares said he hasn't heard anything about the shallow burial of electrical wiring, or other problems, such as electrical panels that frequently overheat because they were installed in a room without proper ventilation.

"That was installed as designed, " Trasobares said.

LONG-AWAITED NEWS

Last fall, Miami Beach High got the news that parents and teachers had been hoping for: Much of the campus will be replaced.

It took the district months, however, to make the decision.

In spring 2000, school board Chairman Krop and the district's former chief facilities officer presented a $26.5 million plan to renovate the school in two phases.

It took a year for the school district to commission an architect. Then, after being paid about $60,000, the architect said it would be cheaper to replace the buildings.

Before the project could move forward, the school board had to get permission from the Department of Education to demolish existing buildings. The approval came last February, but it took about eight more months for the district to commission the architect. The district wanted to let the community have a say in the project, and that caused some delay, said de la Horra. And when the project was upgraded from a renovation to a replacement, the district needed to gather $25 million.

The project - now three years in the planning - includes a new addition, a new cafeteria, media center, gym, vocational labs, auditorium and bus drop off, as well as life-safety upgrades.

The delays have frustrated Principal Friedman, who has so far seen 15 preliminary proposals. Pollack wants to see the work done so he can focus on kids again. Last fall, as he walked through a building, a teacher called out: "That roof is leaking like crazy." "I didn't know that, " Pollack said, making a note to call maintenance. Pollack passed a geometry class when a second teacher called for help: "They have no place to sit, " pointing to three students without desks. "And two are absent."

In the hallway, a third teacher stopped Pollack: "By the way, the locks, we can't get them open."

"Where?"

"The staff restrooms. You can unlock them but then you can't get the doors open." Pollack promised to call the locksmith. He gathered six desks out of an empty classroom for the geometry class and went looking for more.

He passed a math class. "I'm full in here, " the teacher said.

A second math class: "My fourth-period has 40 kids, " the teacher said. Pollack started singing, snapping his fingers to The Four Tops tune he sings whenever he's frustrated.

"Now it's the same old song . . . " Database editor Jason Grotto contributed to this report.

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