Campaign for school bonds starting in Miami-Dade

 

One pollster believes the bond referendum has a good chance of passing. Voters will be asked if they want to borrow $1.2 billion to upgrade school buildings and technology.

lisensee@MiamiHerald.com

Friday night Miami Senior alumni were invited back to their alma mater for fun and networking in Little Havana -- plus a tour of renovations at the historic school.

The get-together is just one way the Miami-Dade school district is working to tell voters about its proposed $1.2 billion bond referendum. The question will be on the Nov. 6 ballot: Do county voters want to borrow money to upgrade school buildings and technology?

Expect information at school open houses, business groups, home associations, a dedicated website and on social media. Even a smartphone app is in the works to give neighborhood-by-neighborhood impact and continuous updates.

“This is not about convincing,” Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said of the educational campaign. “This is an honest story of where we were, where we are and the possibilities for the future.”

The bond referendum aims to provide needed renovations at nearly 300 schools and close the digital learning divide among students. Nearly half of the Dade schools are over 40 years old and technology can vary widely. The bond seeks to modernize classroom technology across the district.

Carvalho said the district will follow a grass-roots approach, starting with information at open houses and a detailed website. Launched this week, the site lets people see the work planned at their home schools.

Separately, a political action committee called Building for Tomorrow formed this week to drum up political support for the construction bonds. It is chaired by Antonio Argiz, chairman and CEO of the Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra accounting firm who was honored last fall for his philanthropy.

“We are striving obviously to maintain a clear firewall between administration, management, the school system and the marketing functions that rightly fall under the committee,” Carvalho said.

The bond issue has a good chance of passing, despite lingering economic woes, said Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University and pollster.

Why? The presidential election will draw a lot of Democrats. Carvalho, known for his political savvy, has laid the groundwork with business groups and board members. He also has burnished his reputation, improving the district’s relationship with the Legislature and balancing budgets in tough times.

Moreno said tax-wary voters have some appetite to help kids, just as they did in 2008 with the hearty renewal of The Children’s Trust.

“So far, I don’t see any organized opposition emerging. If it doesn’t, then I think it will probably pass,” Moreno said.

Voters will get the final say, he said.

“However, I do still think there could be a political backlash against the School Board members who voted to put this on the ballot. They will face a very different electorate in their re-election in August 2014 than in a November election.”

School Board Member Raquel Regalado understands that the bond issue, or anything resembling a tax, is a big concern to voters.

“That is why we are placing it on the ballot and demanding transparency,’’ she said. “Unlike recent unpopular taxes or bond issuances, this is not money to the general fund, or for employee raises. This is self-help strictly for facilities and technology.”

Carvalho has pledged to create safeguards to make sure the program delivers fairly and on time, including new ethics rules and procurement procedures for minority businesses.

The new bond program is, in essence, a continuation of the old program of 1988 – which ends in five years. And the new bond will be repaid through property tax revenues over 30 years. According to an analysis by Public Financial Management: For the first year, 2013, a homeowner would pay $5 per $100,000 of assessed value for the new program in addition to the $23 for every $100,000 of assessed value for the existing bond program, which ends in 2017.

For the full term of the new program, a homeowner would pay an average of $27 for every $100,000 of assessed value, up to the maximum of $35 for every $100,000 of assessed value by 2021.

The informational campaign started with back-to-school. That week Carvalho visited Notre Dame d’Haiti Catholic Church, a touchstone for many Haitian families in Miami, and talked about the bonds at the Latin Builders Association.

On the first day of class, Carvalho highlighted capital improvements at North Dade Middle School, which got a completely new campus after a threat of collapse two years ago, and Miami Senior High, the historic campus in Little Havana that has been expanded and is getting a facelift. At Miami Senior, Carvalho touted the fact that the final cost of the project will come in at about $50 million - about half what was expected.

At a press news about Tropical Storm Isaac, Carvalho and his chief facilities officer, Jaime Torrens, reminded residents about general capital needs, beyond any minor storm damage.

“We definitely are vulnerable to tropical storms and hurricanes because of the age of a lot of our buildings. Many of our air-conditioning systems in particular and our roofs are nearing the end of their service life,” Torrens said. “This remains a concern to us, and we look to a permanent solution to this, hopefully in the near future.”

Other events on Carvalho’s calendar, where the bond issue will likely surface: at the Beacon Council; a town hall at Palmetto Senior High School; and the Kendall Federation of Homeowners Associations.

School Board Member Martin Karp said detail is essential.

“If you don’t have the information, you’re going to be skeptical and say we’d love to support education, but this is a lot of money. With a level of detail, I have no problem getting behind this.”

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