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Palmetto Bay

School expansion vote falls short


Special to the Miami Herald

Plans to increase enrollment at a Montessori school in Palmetto Bay took a hit after the initiative did not get the needed support from residents in a recent special election.

Alexander Montessori School wants to increase the maximum number of students from 270 to 329 at its six-acre Ludlam Road Elementary Campus, 14850 SW 67th Ave.

The issue was brought to a referendum that ended Tuesday night. While about 66 percent of the voters supported with the increase, the initiative still failed. The school needed to win 75 percent of the vote to continue its zoning application.

“We had hoped to win but we knew that 75 percent of the vote was a very high bar to get over,” said James McGhee, the school’s headmaster. “But we are not going to give up.”

McGhee said school officials will consult with their attorney and the village to discuss other options, such as repeating the referendum, to reach their goal.

Only voters who live within 2,000 feet of the school received ballots in the mail during the recent special election. That added up to 330 people of whom 119 sent back their ballots, according to Miami-Dade County Elections Department results certified by Palmetto Bay.

“It’s very possible that if we had to conduct the referendum again, more people would vote, and we could get the needed votes,” McGhee said. And if he gets a second referendum, he said he would work harder to educate residents about the school's expansion plans.

Aside from the zoning application to increase enrollment because of high demand, school officials are asking for a new master site plan that would permit them to replace the campus’ north and south buildings.

The new master site plan, which was not part of the recent referendum, includes the replacement of the one-story north and south buildings with two-story L-shaped facilities that McGhee said would enhance the look of Ludlam Road. But moving forward with this plan is contingent upon increasing the enrollment.

“It makes no sense to build such a large facility without an increased enrollment,” he said.

Before Palmetto Bay commissioners gave their unanimous vote allowing the recent referendum, Alexander Montessori School’s attorney Jerry Proctor sent a letter to the village attorney saying that while the school will go through with the special election, the charter provision requirement for the referendum is unconstitutional.

Proctor cited a 2012 Florida attorney general’s opinion saying that local governments may not require residents’ consent for a zoning application submitted by a neighboring property owner.

Attorney General Pam Bondi wrote that “the opinions of residents are not factual evidence and have been determined by the courts to not constitute a sound basis for denial of a zoning change application.”

Palmetto Bay Village Attorney Even Boutsis responded by saying the attorney general’s opinion and the issue in Palmetto Bay are different. Bondi opined on an issue where the local government is giving the authority to residents, while in Palmetto Bay the general electorate–and not the council–gave village residents the power of a referendum, Boutsis said.

Palmetto Bay’s referendum stems from a 2009 special election in which 68 percent of village residents who voted approved a charter provision that requires a referendum for a private school to expand. The charter amendment mandate was put forth by a residents’ activist group, the Save our Palmetto Bay committee, which gathered more than 2,000 signatures and placed the question on the 2009 mail-in ballot.

The charter change came after a lengthy dispute between the village and Palmer Trinity School over expansion.

Mayor Shelley Stanczyk said this was the first time the charter provision requiring a referendum was used.

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