Miami-Dade Schools

Talk of MAST Academy at FIU hinges on funding from community

 

dsmiley@MiamiHerald.com

A new grade school with the coveted MAST brand could emerge on Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay Campus — as long as surrounding communities are willing and able to make it happen.

Talks between FIU and Miami-Dade County Public Schools administrators about building a school for grades 6 through 12 at the university’s campus in North Miami have intensified recently, and further negotiations were endorsed this month by the Miami-Dade School Board.

The idea: Capitalize on the university’s faculty, research labs and bayfront land by building a school with a marine science theme, similar to the successful and popular MAST Academy on Virginia Key.

But the new school’s future — and how much it would cost — isn’t certain. What gets built, if anything, hinges on “funding support” from surrounding municipalities. And that’s not a given.

“I knew they were working on this, but I have not heard about us putting in any money,” North Miami Beach Mayor George Vallejo said recently. “We’ll have to discuss the money issues, but I believe that high-quality education options are good for the cities and good for the communities.”

Leaders in North Miami Beach and neighboring municipalities will be the latest in Miami-Dade to consider whether their cash-strapped communities should plunge dollars into public education, which is already heavily funded by local property taxes.

Since the mid-2000s, more than a half-dozen communities have entered into land and cash deals with the district to expand school choices, alleviate crowding and create new programming.

“It has become known out there that this is a viable way of swiftly delivering on solutions to communities,” Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said. “Now we are approached with ideas just as often as we approach the municipalities.”

Earlier this month, in a stretch of just two days, the School Board voted to negotiate terms with nearby cities for the new school at FIU, and the city of Homestead’s Community Redevelopment Agency voted to contribute $775,000 toward an expansion of West Homestead Elementary to a science, math and technology-themed K-8 Center. The School Board also agreed to change the names of two schools in Cutler Bay as part of a nearly $3 million deal with the town to turn two under-enrolled middle schools into a grades 6-12 academy with brand-new science facilities.

Driving these agreements, which can take years to finalize, is residents’ desire for better schools, as well as the district’s own budget woes, created by dwindling state and local funding sources for capital projects. Saddled with a $2 billion backlog $2 billion backlog in maintenance and capital needs, the school district has negotiated deals in which some municipalities have spent millions to court and fast-track new school development and expansions.

Among the district’s partners:

• Sunny Isles Beach, which has spent about $15 million to buy land for the Norman Edelcup/Sunny Isles Beach K-8 Center and to fund and finance an expansion.

• North Miami, which donated two parcels of land to build what is now the Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High and the new North Miami Senior High, and helped finance the schools’ construction.

• Key Biscayne, which approved a $10 million matching contribution to expand the nearby MAST Academy and provided $2 million in upfront financing to renovate the crowded Key Biscayne K-8 Center.

Carvalho said his administration is in talks with “two or three” other municipalities about partnerships. He expects communities desiring new programs or expanded facilities will continue to seek out or consider deals despite voters’ recent approval of $1.2 billion in bonds to fund technology, renovations and replacements.

“To deliver beyond that, on opportunities that are often advocated for by municipal leaders and their residents, a partnership is actually what we need,” he said. “It transcends what the bond would deliver.”

Some of the best advertisements for such deals come from the communities that have signed agreements.

Miami Beach city leaders, who in a 2008 deal with the district committed $500,000 and recurring expenses to bring the International Baccalaureate program to all the city’s schools, often tout the city as the lone community in the country where all students have access to the renowned curriculum.

And Cutler Bay Mayor Ed MacDougall says the town’s real estate market has improved as this year the first class of ninth-graders attends Centennial Middle, now called the Cutler Bay Academy of Advanced Studies, Centennial Campus.

“There are people moving to Cutler Bay, and the prices of homes are increasing simply because people moving here with children know now there are higher quality schools,” said MacDougall, whose Choice One Companies includes a real estate division. “We see it from the ground in my business.”

Still, the decision to enter into these agreements — or invest in charter schools, as cities like Aventura and Pembroke Pines have done — isn’t always easy.

In Key Biscayne’s case, Mayor Frank Caplan said village leaders were initially torn over the money they were proposing to borrow to fund school improvements.

“To make that kind of money investment was controversial,” he said. “Why should we have to fund this after we pay all this money in tax, and we don’t get what we think is our proportional return? Why should we have to do that? The answer is, if we want it to be better, we have to do it. That’s the reality. It’s not fair. It’s not right. But that’s it. You either fuss or fix..”

Key Biscayne’s agreement, the latest crafted by the district, contributed to the newest proposal.

FIU President Mark Rosenberg, who for years has worked with Carvalho’s administration to create partnerships, said the July agreement between the district and Key Biscayne “opened our eyes to the great opportunity that aligned with our strengths.”

He said a marine science program was an obvious opportunity, but other partnerships with the campus’ school of hospitality, journalism school and creative writing center on campus have been considered. Part of the proposal includes the potential to serve not only students district-wide but also to save seats for students from the surrounding community, which is how deals were cut with Cutler Bay and Key Biscayne.

Whether the school would be a MAST Academy ultimately hinges on the school board, but Rosenberg said expectations are that the school would host as many students as the MAST on Virginia Key.

What hasn’t been discussed is the cost.

“There’s a nice philosophical alignment here,” he said. “Whether it will happen, we’ll see.”

Miami Herald staff writer Nadege Green contributed to this report.

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