The Miami-Dade School Board has failed to fix more than 44,000 fire- and life-safety hazards threatening the district's schools - including thousands that would have cost $50 or less to correct - despite repeated warnings from fire marshals, principals and the school system's own inspectors.
In a district that has received almost $6 billion since 1988 to build, repair and maintain schools, campuses across the county lack fire extinguishers, exit signs, smoke detectors, emergency escape windows, fire-resistant glass, evacuation maps, fire-rated walls, two-way call systems and emergency lights.
Thousands of deficiencies have lingered for years, a Herald investigation has found.
Miami Senior High, with 486 outstanding violations, is missing smoke detectors and emergency escape exits. Corridors need guardrails, classrooms need emergency lights. At least one portable classroom isn't anchored to the ground.
The electrical room recently caught fire, which terrified Principal Victor Lopez because some classrooms don't have working alarms.
"In this case, the fire alarm actually worked. We were thrilled," said Lopez, who said some improvements have been made since then. "The whole school could have caught fire. It upsets me that we cannot move on these things fast enough."
Scrutiny from fire marshals, parents, the media and a Miami-Dade grand jury prodded the school board to set aside about $65 million through the end of this school year to address serious violations.
But a Herald analysis reveals sweeping deficiencies in schools from Miami Lakes to Hialeah to Homestead. It will likely take months and millions more dollars to correct long-standing problems - as well as widespread changes in the way the district does business.
A strapped and sometimes inefficient maintenance department, planning gaps and outright neglect have allowed safety violations to fester for years. And money that could have - ALFREDO SUAREZ, Miami-Dade County fire marshal been used to correct deficiencies was swallowed up by dozens of troubled construction projects costing far more than anticipated.
Almost 40 percent of the safety hazards listed in a school district data file have not been corrected, including 150 that date back to the 1970s.
Some are particularly serious, such as emergency escape windows that are locked, blocked or missing or indoor stairwells without the walls and doors needed to block traveling smoke.
The estimated price to fix all violations, according to district estimates: $136 million.
But in at least dozens of cases, little more than a screwdriver would have solved the problem.
The Herald's review details thousands of minor violations left uncorrected, including almost 8,300 that would have cost the district $50 or less to fix.
"There's a culture at the school site, everybody has their job, everybody has their function, and if you cross the line, you get burned," said Carlos Hevia, executive director of school construction. "Technically, we're not prepared systemwide to respond to things that quickly."
Still, Hevia and others point out that many outstanding violations are technical and don't put children in danger. Schools can be cited for everything from missing toilet paper holders to broken light bulbs. They also say it's near impossible for a system with more than 350 schools to keep campuses free of all potential hazards.