MIAMI-DADE SCHOOLS

Supt. Alberto Carvalho vs. bureaucracy as usual

 

mputney@local10.com

If government were about profit rather than service it would be more imaginative, creative and responsive. As it is, government at almost any level is usually a lethargic, plodding, rule-bound, bureaucratic dead zone where imagination and creativity are not rewarded and responsiveness to citizens’ needs is not part of the job description.

For government in general and South Florida in particular, good enough is, well, good enough. After all, if citizens don’t like it, what’s the alternative?

Government and the vast majority of people who run it generally lack a sense of urgency. They’re nice enough, but grace under pressure is rare. Something’s just got to be done today? It may or may not happen.

We’ve seen that let-it-slide attitude permeate the budget-shaping process in Miami-Dade in recent weeks. Mayor Gimenez proposed a stay-in-place budget with a slight tax increase to maintain current service levels and establish the Pets’ Trust, which voters overwhelmingly approved in a nonbinding straw vote.

The operative word for at least eight commissioners being “nonbinding.” The mayor’s small tax increase sent them — especially those up for reelection — into a paroxysm of anxiety. No new taxes! And some of the mayor’s friends appear to have reamed him out, after a fashion, because the day after he released his budget he started backpedaling. And was in a full retreat a week later. It was a rare misstep for a sure-footed mayor.

Ah, but consider what has since happened. Miraculously, the number of library branches to be shut down dwindled from 22 to four. The third floor of the main library and the basement were closed to save money. Leases for many of the branches were rewritten at lower cost. Voilá, the money was found to keep several library branches open.

Similarly, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue took a second look and found enough money to cut the number of fire units at risk of elimination from six to three. Layoffs of firefighters and paramedics were halved. All to the good, but why weren’t these cost-cutting measures done before the mayor released his first 2013-14 FY budget?

If the mayor suspected there was fat to be cut, why didn’t he do some governmental lipo?

The answer, I fear, is that county department heads were never ordered to take a hard look at their departmental budgets and find cost savings beforehand. Never asked to consider restructuring their departments to save money or be more efficient. The goal was just to keep them running with a few tweaks here and there. Good enough would do.

Thankfully, that’s no longer the attitude at Miami-Dade Public Schools. There, you’d better be able to think outside the box, be creative and imaginative or someone will eat your lunch. And take your job. Under the startlingly good leadership of Alberto Carvalho, supported by a collegial and united School Board, Miami-Dade schools are undergoing a renaissance. One that has put them on the cutting edge of education reform.

Carvalho has personally led the way at the Primary Learning Center and iPrep, the elementary and high school, which are housed in the old Jefferson’s building across from school district headquarters. Carvalho divides his time between running the $4.3-billion school district and tending to the 630 students who attend the two schools where he is the principal.

Carvalho gave me a guided tour last week, and the excitement at the PLC and iPrep was palpable. From teachers to maintenance workers to parents signing up their students, Carvalho’s guiding hand is evident everywhere. In the design and thoughtfulness of iPrep, a seemingly laissez-faire environment where kids sit in learning pods or do their work in cozy nooks sitting in cool chairs from Ikea. There’s also a room with treadmills and StairMasters with TV screens so that students can plug in their tablets and watch Shakespeare or a documentary while working out. “I read and watch TV when I’m working out,” says Carvalho. “Why shouldn’t kids?” Why, indeed.

Test scores indicate the iPrep model is working. It’s been studied by educators from England and Hong Kong, among other places, and now is replicated in 49 middle schools across Miami-Dade. “This is about delivering the promise of tomorrow to our kids today,” Carvalho says. “An inviting, exciting, respectful environment.” He actually talks that way. Dresses in Armani. Speaks five languages. Grew up poor in a one-room apartment in Portugal and now runs the fourth-largest school system in the United States. And doesn’t tolerate “good enough.” He wants the best.

Barkeep, I’ll have what Carvalho’s drinking. And send a case to mayors and administrators everywhere.

Read more Michael Putney stories from the Miami Herald

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