District in Nevada a role model

02/13/2003 11:08 AM

09/08/2014 5:33 PM

Twenty-five hundred miles from Miami, in the same year the Miami-Dade School Board approved a massive bond referendum for construction, a school district rising from the deserts of southern Nevada faced a staggering challenge.

More than 8,000 new students a year were flooding Clark County Schools, and even more were on the way. In the span of a decade, the Las Vegas-based system with some 120,000 students expected to more than double in size. In 1988, voters passed a bond referendum worth $600 million.

Both school systems, overwhelmed by construction needs and flush with new money, launched two of the most aggressive school-building campaigns in the nation.

In the past 15 years, Clark County built 147 schools.

Dade County built 61, and that includes seven largely funded before the $980 million bond referendum in 1988. The school system also built 14 primary learning centers, small buildings to ease crowding on existing campuses.

It took Clark County five years and $600 million to build the first series of 57 schools, plus renovations and additions, promised in 1988.

It took Miami-Dade County the better part of 15 years and well over $1.2 billion for new schools alone.

Clark County has since approved two more bond referendums worth $1.2 billion. The district built 145 major school additions, bought up vacant land, spent hundreds of millions on renovation projects, replaced three inner-city schools, and opened dozens more schools, including 25 in the last two years alone.

The work was done at a frantic pace.

"We delivered quality schools for a reasonable price," said Dale Scheideman, director of new schools facilities and planning in Clark County. "And we opened schools quickly. Because we were able to do that, the community didn't question us."

Yet, controversy has hounded Miami-Dade County's school-construction program.

It cost too much, produced too little, dragged on for years even as communities waited and children grew up. The hope for upgraded, less crowded schools died as project after project stumbled, leaving behind a district now desperate to muster public confidence.

Crowding is worse than ever. Leaks and cracking walls afflict new buildings. Thousands of fire- and life-safety violations linger on campuses from Hialeah to Homestead. Existing schools struggle to teach children in schools taxed by obsolete classrooms, busted air conditioners, leaking roofs, corroded plumbing.

Superintendent Merrett Stierheim is beginning to overhaul the construction program.

Late Wednesday, he released a three-page memo to his top staff detailing six sweeping proposals. Among them: hiring more experienced architects and holding them accountable for errors that drive up costs. He also wants construction experts to regularly inspect projects - from planning to construction to the final occupancy of buildings.

Stierheim is tracking problem construction projects to find out why new buidings had deficiencies such as water intrusion.

And his staff is talking about strategies that districts like Clark County have long relied on, such as building a series of schools using "prototypes," meaning the same plans and designs.

Today, he's hosting a construction retreat with construction experts to explore ways to rebuild the program. "The overwhelming conclusion is we can do a better job, and that we . . . are committed to doing that," he said. "I hope that people are going to at least have hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel."

BONDS APPROVED

After the success of the first bond referendum, voters in Clark County approved another one for $600 million in 1994.

It took the district less than four years after that vote to open 25 new schools and renovate existing campuses. In 1996, a third bond referendum for $643 million paid for 19 new schools and renovations.

The district will collect another $3.5 million in tax proceeds over the next 10 years to pay for 88 more schools, among other things.

Some of Clark County's success is due to the consistent flow of new money - all told, the district has so far received about $3 billion since 1988. Miami-Dade County Schools have received $6 billion, but has many more schools to repair and renovate. Miami-Dade County also uses some of that money to pay for maintenance; Clark County does not.

Yet Clark County has faced unusual challenges.

It's not easy or cheap to build in Nevada because utilities and roads must be linked to sites in the desert. The district was often the first to build and had to coordinate water, sewer lines and electricity.

Despite those obstacles, Clark County, now the nation's sixth-largest system with 260,000 students, has been cited as a national model. Scheideman has helped more than 30 other districts fine-tune construction programs.

One of the keys to Clark County's success is its heavy reliance on identical designs to build schools.

Using the same plans and designs saves time and architect fees, and can also cut down on construction costs because contractors are usually familiar with the plans.

The Miami-Dade County School Board over the years rejected a heavy use of prototypes.

In 1991, former Superintendent Octavio Visiedo urged the board to approve the use of the same designs for up to six new schools. Until then, the board only allowed one design for up to three schools.

Visiedo was voted down.

"I even had an analysis that if we did this for the construction of all schools, I could pay for more new schools that were not even in our plans," Visiedo said.

Janet McAliley, on the board from 1980 to 1996, said she supported a limited use of prototypes but didn't want every school to look the same.

Clark County also for years relied on a pool of just 15 architects that became experts in school design. The group was recently expanded to 30.

In Miami-Dade County, the School Board had promised to spread lucrative design work across the community if the bond referendum passed. In a six-year period in the early 1990s, the district worked with more than 180 architects. Some firms with little experience on school projects bungled jobs, running up costly errors and delays.

Another difference: Clark County at the start set specific standards for schools, detailing building features and equipment. That made it difficult for staff to justify costly and time-consuming changes after construction started.

In Miami-Dade County, delays on construction projects in the last 15 years added more than 80,000 days in cumulative delays. About one-third of those costs were fueled by district and school staffers who altered the scopes of projects after construction began.

Clark County also built a sophisticated planning unit to determine where to build in a district spanning 8,000 square miles and several cities.

The district created teams to work with developers, utility departments, building departments, permitting officers, code enforcers and city and county planners. District planners estimate how quickly a new school will "tip," meaning enrollment shoots past the school's building capacity.

New schools in Clark County were not inexpensive, largely because the district had to build from scratch in the desert and compete for a limited pool of contractors and construction workers busy building the Las Vegas strip. In some cases, the district spent more for new-school construction than Miami-Dade County did.

But the schools regularly opened on time and within budget. Now, well over half of the schools are new.

"Our community is happy with that," Scheideman said. "Our kids have a nice place to go to school."

OTHER COUNTIES

Like Clark County, both Broward and Palm Beach counties frequently use identical designs to build schools.

Palm Beach County opened 11 schools last year on time and within budget.

At Independence Middle, a new, $17 million school north of West Palm Beach, students study robotics in a state-of-the-art technology lab. They line-dance in a gym complete with a sound system.

Construction took just 15 months because the school was built by the same architect-contractor team that completed an identical school in southern Palm Beach County.

"If they don't have school experience, they can get it somewhere else and then come here," said Tom Johns, director of program management for Palm Beach County Schools.

Miami-Dade County Schools has made a number of changes in recent months to strengthen its construction program.

The district now evaluates general contractors before they're hired and works with a smaller pool of architects. Changes during construction have been scaled back, and the district is no longer giving new business to contractors who left old jobs incomplete.

Longtime district staffers endorse the changes but defend the 15-year-old construction program.

They say despite unexpected growth surges and damage caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the program delivered what was promised and more.

"Every penny I've spent, I've spent for the good of kids," said Greg Boardman, a veteran district construction supervisor who recently took a job in Broward County Schools. "All this criticism, it's almost insulting to us."

But Miami-Dade County parents and educators, who in some cases waited years for promised projects, say only sweeping change will earn back the trust of a disgruntled community.

At a January meeting of a state-appointed oversight board, which is studying maintenance and construction, member Ed London pitched a plan he said would fix the most pressing problems.

CHANGES PROPOSED

The district, among other things, would team up architects and contractors on all large construction projects, rely heavily on prototypes, set a fixed price for projects, provide a bonus for early completion and stricter penalties for delays.

The changes would mean the district would likely need far fewer positions in its construction department. And there would be less work to spread among architects and general contractors, which could draw criticism.

"I believe the School Board senses that in order for something to happen, you have to have change," London said. "The only thing is how much pressure the board will receive both from employees and from architects who feel threatened.

"Can they stand up to it?"

Herald database editor Tim Henderson and staff writer Matthew I. Pinzur contributed to this report.

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