CRUMBLING SCHOOLS; CRAMPED CLASSROOMS

Thousands of fire hazards found

 

dcenziper@MiamiHerald.com

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.

WIDESPREAD PROBLEMS

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.

Vandalism is a chronic problem, officials say, and so is keeping complicated systems like fire alarms in good shape.

WARNINGS IGNORED

But the school board routinely ignored warnings about widespread neglect, and only promised to make repairs after intense public pressure, Miami-Dade County fire marshals say. One in three outstanding deficiencies involve fire safety.

Though the district has corrected some 68,000 violations over the years, it took 2.8 years on average to get the work done. And more than 2,100 deficiencies took 10 years or longer to fix.

"It was a nightmare. Anything and everything that we gave over to them would be acknowledged, but that was as far as it went," Miami-Dade County Fire Marshal Alfredo Suarez said. "You'd come back, the same violation would be there."

"Now, they're playing catch-up for 30 years of putting this aside."

Part of the problem, fire marshals say, was Florida law. Fire marshals were not required to inspect schools unless they suspected children were in imminent danger. A change in law in 2000 gave fire marshals inspection responsibilities.

But there was another hurdle.

Even after fire marshals discovered problems, they had no authority to force the school system to fix them.

"I could sit there and rant and rave and get all upset but I had no authority," City of Miami Fire Marshal Virgil Fernandez said. "The fox was guarding the hen house."

Fire marshals convinced legislators this year for the authority to cite school districts for building code violations. Now, they say the district is pushing for faster response times, prioritizing projects and seeking help from life-safety engineers.

They credit Superintendent Merrett Stierheim, who took over 15 months ago.

After learning of uncorrected violations from The Herald last month, Stierheim sent a letter to principals demanding they immediately correct the most basic violations, such as removing storage from electrical rooms and unlocking exit doors.

But parents and community leaders question why the district overlooked the conditions for years.

"They are so strict on fire drills and making sure the kids are doing the right thing. But if the kids aren't being protected, that's a bigger issue," said Tammy Austin, Parent Teacher Association President at Miami Shores Elementary, with 319 uncorrected violations. "I am probably the biggest fan of Miami Shores Elementary. But if there are fire violations, they have to be corrected . . . immediately."

Since 1970, dozens of fires have hit the district's schools, gutting classrooms, portables, offices, cafeterias and entire buildings, and inflicting hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage. Most were caused by arson, but electrical shorts, heating units, botched science experiments, storage rooms stuffed with flammable materials and accidents during repair and renovation work triggered some of the blazes.

Meanwhile, almost half of Miami-Dade County schools were built in the 1950s or earlier, and are saddled with safety equipment that's old, broken or obsolete. In 2001, one in four principals reported recent failures in fire and security alarm systems.

The district is also the most crowded urban school system in Florida. Students take class in storage rooms and closets without emergency exits. Teachers have pushed filing cabinets into hallways to make space, blocking exits. Doors have been locked shut to control traffic.

"All these things converge into a very serious situation," said Paul Novack, a parent and local mayor who in 2000 helped draw public attention to the violations, particularly at Miami Beach High.

Today, Miami Beach High has 364 outstanding violations.

School Board Chairman Michael Krop said the board didn't know how serious the problems were until fire marshals got involved.

"I can't make an excuse for why they weren't addressed. I don't think there is an excuse," he said. "But when we discovered it, we took action."

The district, however, has had seven inspectors who visited schools annually, citing everything from broken gates to missing floor tiles to structural deficiencies.

Every year, detailed reports were delivered to school board offices. Board members had only to open a box and pull a file to learn of the deficiencies.

The district's inspectors also funneled the information to the maintenance department, school principals and the construction office. But year after year, at school after school, they found the same deficiencies, overlooked and unfixed.

"We've been notifying every department . . . about what needs to be fixed," said John DiBenedetto, who oversees the inspectors.

Shari Lee, the district's capitol budget director, said the system has spent millions correcting violations at the same time it tackled renovation and addition projects at schools countywide. But Hevia said life-safety projects were frequently scaled back.

In 1988, after Dade County voters approved a $980 million referendum for school construction, the district planned to fix many deficiencies. But when money was tight, officials cut life-safety work.

"It always became a shorter list," Hevia said.

The district's maintenance department also contributed repair delays.

A 2001 audit of the district's maintenance department found a 10-inch thick report, containing 37,000 open work orders, some dated as early as 1997, largely ignored by maintenance directors.

Part of the problem is that in the past 10 years, 158 specialist trade persons have been cut even as dozens of new schools opened.

"The failure is in the follow-up," said school board member Frank Cobo, who was elected to the board in 2001 and has been requesting updates on life-safety repairs.

The audit also found maintenance relies heavily on overtime and lacks a system to prioritize projects, assigning work in a "somewhat random order" based on the availability of staff and supplies. And maintenance sometimes spends too much on simple tasks - replacing a door cost the district $1,110, repairing broken sprinkler heads cost $8,061, painting handrails cost $9,697.

"I am overwhelmed by the bureaucracy of it all, the inability to make the right decisions quickly," said Ed Easton, who chairs a state-appointed oversight board studying school construction and maintenance.

Stierheim is in negotiations with a private company to oversee maintenance.

In recent months, the school system has studied the safety needs at 185 schools, and has spent $14.6 million installing new fire alarms and In at least dozens of cases, little more than a screwdriver would have solved the problem. sprinklers in schools. Fifteen schools are getting equipment now and 37 might next year.

"We've got to keep going until all the work is done," district Facilities Chief Suzanne Marshall said. 'Year by year, we'll just have to keep plugging away and doing the work."

WAITING FOR REPAIRS

Meanwhile, 75-year-old Miami High waits for more repairs.

Lopez, the principal, walks the halls of a school he once attended, noting missing fire extinguishers and corroded classroom walls. There's a hole the size of a basketball on the front of the school; someone covered it with a metal grate.

Roof leaks have warped the school stage. Teachers lay newspaper down when it rains to keep students from slipping.

Lopez, who has worked for the district for 29 years, said his requests for help often go unanswered.

"Sometimes you do all the paperwork and everything that you have to do, and then they say there are no funds to do it," he said. 'Miami High has been put on the back burner when it comes to upkeep."

Board members say they're committed to repairing the violations.

"I don't want to be around if one child gets burned," Cobo said.

"Forget about a school or more than one child. One is too many."

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