Standing in front of a crowd cheering voters’ approval of a mammoth $1.2 billion school construction referendum, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho promised last November to deliver the work “on time and under budget.”
So far, so good, he says — even if one year later, construction has yet to begin.
“We are either on schedule or ahead of schedule in all areas as we planned them,” Carvalho said.
With the first anniversary of the bond initiative’s passage on Wednesday, the district has launched 69 projects at 66 schools, worth close to $200 million collectively. Planning on most of those projects, however, has only just started, and money has only just begun to flow.
The pace is intentional, according to Carvalho. After rushing to propose, promote and pass the bond initiative in just under three months — other efforts across the country have taken as long as a year — district officials spent most of the past year pursuing prep work that typically takes place before a referendum.
“We told folks [during the campaign] and we’ve told them since that we’re doing this backwards,” said Carvalho. “We told folks after the election that all the elements of bond preparation that weren’t done in the year of campaigning that usually takes place, we’d have to do afterward.”
That includes legitimizing the results of the referendum in court and then selling the first $200 million in bonds in July. The district also secured interest rates for the next $100 million in bonds, to be released in February, and announced it would be able to begin all projects within five years instead of the original seven.
The school board established an oversight committee of volunteers and officials to monitor the district’s progress. Board members also hired a project manager, Parsons Brinckerhoff, last May to oversee the several hundred projects, and district administrators budgeted and signed contracts for first-year projects.
Board members also passed a new policy to help small businesses win construction contracts, and bolstered the district’s queue of pre-approved contractors, architects and engineers to speed up contracting.
A study of the district’s hiring of minority- and women-owned businesses is nearly done. And a new Office of Economic Opportunity is helping to ensure local workers are hired for each project.
“What they’re doing here is massive. And they’ve been going about it in a methodical way,” said Roberto Martinez, a former State Board of Education member who is now chairman of the bond oversight group. “Frankly, I’m glad we didn’t just start throwing money out there thoughtlessly.”
Behind the scenes, work has been under way for months to install wireless infrastructure in schools as part of an effort to make all schools wireless by March. In August, the rollout of major renovation and improvements projects began when the district put contractors to work on the first 69 facilities.
“We’re ready and now we’re surging,” Carvalho said.
To promote the work, Carvalho, board members and state legislators began campaigning last week, making stops at schools from Homestead to Hialeah to hold ceremonial groundbreakings. On Wednesday, they held a large gathering at Miami Norland Senior High, where they unveiled a draft site plan for the $35 million school replacement project.
Most jobs cost $2 million or less, and 15 are located in the historically overlooked inner city and north central corridor.
Last week, Board Member Dorothy Bendross Mindingall talked about investing $62 million in first year projects in those areas during a stop at Kelsey L. Pharr Elementary in Brownsville. The school was built in 1968 and is slated to receive $1.8 million in technology upgrades and new walkways, among other improvements.
“You know that it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open for the schools over 60 years old, your [Miami] Edisons and your [Frederick] Douglass elementaries and those areas that are underserved,” she said, mentioning two inner city schools where work is slated to begin this school year. “We will serve them.”
At Norland, the district’s signature job for the first year, because of its massive scope and how long the community has been waiting for badly needed improvements, alumni, parents and activists are watching closely. Those who spoke to the Herald said they’re “cautiously” trusting the district to produce a good product.
“People are anxious,” said Milton Parris, who as president of the school’s alumni association has participated in project talks. “Everybody is excited to get out of that old building. It’s 55 years old now and it’s deteriorating.”
Construction at Norland isn’t set to begin for another year, but Parris said that’s fine with him because it gives the district time to get its design right.
The last bond initiative in the late 1980s, he noted, was marred by poor planning and contractor change-over that caused problems for other schools.
“From what other people have said at other schools that were done, they suggested take your time and make sure it’s done right. Because what happened with their schools, having to change contractors between buildings, that can be a disaster,” he said. “It’s best to take your time.”