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Thousands of fire hazards found

The Miami-Dade School Board has failed to fix more than 44,000 fire- and life-safety hazardsthreatening the district's schools - including thousands that would have cost $50 or less to correct- despite repeated warnings from fire marshals, principals and the school system's own inspectors.

In a district that has received almost $6 billion since 1988 to build, repair and maintainschools, campuses across the county lack fire extinguishers, exit signs, smoke detectors, emergencyescape windows, fire-resistant glass, evacuation maps, fire-rated walls, two-way call systems andemergency lights.

Thousands of deficiencies have lingered for years, a Herald investigation has found.

Miami Senior High, with 486 outstanding violations, is missing smoke detectors and emergencyescape exits. Corridors need guardrails, classrooms need emergency lights. At least one portableclassroom isn't anchored to the ground.

The electrical room recently caught fire, which terrified Principal Victor Lopez because someclassrooms don't have working alarms.

"In this case, the fire alarm actually worked. We were thrilled," said Lopez, who said someimprovements have been made since then. "The whole school could have caught fire. It upsets me thatwe cannot move on these things fast enough."

Scrutiny from fire marshals, parents, the media and a Miami-Dade grand jury prodded the schoolboard to set aside about $65 million through the end of this school year to address seriousviolations.

WIDESPREAD PROBLEMS

But a Herald analysis reveals sweeping deficiencies in schools from Miami Lakes to Hialeah toHomestead. It will likely take months and millions more dollars to correct long-standing problems -as well as widespread changes in the way the district does business.

A strapped and sometimes inefficient maintenance department, planning gaps and outright neglecthave allowed safety violations to fester for years. And money that could have - ALFREDO SUAREZ,Miami-Dade County fire marshal been used to correct deficiencies was swallowed up by dozens oftroubled construction projects costing far more than anticipated.

Almost 40 percent of the safety hazards listed in a school district data file have not beencorrected, including 150 that date back to the 1970s.

Some are particularly serious, such as emergency escape windows that are locked, blocked ormissing or indoor stairwells without the walls and doors needed to block traveling smoke.

The estimated price to fix all violations, according to district estimates: $136 million.

But in at least dozens of cases, little more than a screwdriver would have solved the problem.

The Herald's review details thousands of minor violations left uncorrected, including almost8,300 that would have cost the district $50 or less to fix.

"There's a culture at the school site, everybody has their job, everybody has their function, andif you cross the line, you get burned," said Carlos Hevia, executive director of schoolconstruction. "Technically, we're not prepared systemwide to respond to things that quickly."

Still, Hevia and others point out that many outstanding violations are technical and don't putchildren in danger. Schools can be cited for everything from missing toilet paper holders to brokenlight bulbs. They also say it's near impossible for a system with more than 350 schools to keepcampuses free of all potential hazards.

Vandalism is a chronic problem, officials say, and so is keeping complicated systems like firealarms in good shape.

WARNINGS IGNORED

But the school board routinely ignored warnings about widespread neglect, and only promised tomake repairs after intense public pressure, Miami-Dade County fire marshals say. One in threeoutstanding deficiencies involve fire safety.

Though the district has corrected some 68,000 violations over the years, it took 2.8 years onaverage to get the work done. And more than 2,100 deficiencies took 10 years or longer to fix.

"It was a nightmare. Anything and everything that we gave over to them would be acknowledged, butthat was as far as it went," Miami-Dade County Fire Marshal Alfredo Suarez said. "You'd come back,the same violation would be there."

"Now, they're playing catch-up for 30 years of putting this aside."

Part of the problem, fire marshals say, was Florida law. Fire marshals were not required toinspect schools unless they suspected children were in imminent danger. A change in law in 2000 gavefire marshals inspection responsibilities.

But there was another hurdle.

Even after fire marshals discovered problems, they had no authority to force the school system tofix them.

"I could sit there and rant and rave and get all upset but I had no authority," City of MiamiFire Marshal Virgil Fernandez said. "The fox was guarding the hen house."

Fire marshals convinced legislators this year for the authority to cite school districts forbuilding code violations. Now, they say the district is pushing for faster response times,prioritizing projects and seeking help from life-safety engineers.

They credit Superintendent Merrett Stierheim, who took over 15 months ago.

After learning of uncorrected violations from The Herald last month, Stierheim sent a letter toprincipals demanding they immediately correct the most basic violations, such as removing storagefrom electrical rooms and unlocking exit doors.

But parents and community leaders question why the district overlooked the conditions for years.

"They are so strict on fire drills and making sure the kids are doing the right thing. But if thekids aren't being protected, that's a bigger issue," said Tammy Austin, Parent Teacher AssociationPresident at Miami Shores Elementary, with 319 uncorrected violations. "I am probably the biggestfan of Miami Shores Elementary. But if there are fire violations, they have to be corrected . . .immediately."

Since 1970, dozens of fires have hit the district's schools, gutting classrooms, portables,offices, cafeterias and entire buildings, and inflicting hundreds of thousands of dollars inproperty damage. Most were caused by arson, but electrical shorts, heating units, botched scienceexperiments, storage rooms stuffed with flammable materials and accidents during repair andrenovation work triggered some of the blazes.

Meanwhile, almost half of Miami-Dade County schools were built in the 1950s or earlier, and aresaddled with safety equipment that's old, broken or obsolete. In 2001, one in four principalsreported recent failures in fire and security alarm systems.

The district is also the most crowded urban school system in Florida. Students take class instorage rooms and closets without emergency exits. Teachers have pushed filing cabinets intohallways to make space, blocking exits. Doors have been locked shut to control traffic.

"All these things converge into a very serious situation," said Paul Novack, a parent and localmayor who in 2000 helped draw public attention to the violations, particularly at Miami Beach High.

Today, Miami Beach High has 364 outstanding violations.

School Board Chairman Michael Krop said the board didn't know how serious the problems were untilfire marshals got involved.

"I can't make an excuse for why they weren't addressed. I don't think there is an excuse," hesaid. "But when we discovered it, we took action."

The district, however, has had seven inspectors who visited schools annually, citing everythingfrom broken gates to missing floor tiles to structural deficiencies.

Every year, detailed reports were delivered to school board offices. Board members had only toopen a box and pull a file to learn of the deficiencies.

The district's inspectors also funneled the information to the maintenance department, schoolprincipals and the construction office. But year after year, at school after school, they found thesame deficiencies, overlooked and unfixed.

"We've been notifying every department . . . about what needs to be fixed," said JohnDiBenedetto, who oversees the inspectors.

Shari Lee, the district's capitol budget director, said the system has spent millions correctingviolations at the same time it tackled renovation and addition projects at schools countywide. ButHevia said life-safety projects were frequently scaled back.

In 1988, after Dade County voters approved a $980 million referendum for school construction, thedistrict planned to fix many deficiencies. But when money was tight, officials cut life-safety work.

"It always became a shorter list," Hevia said.

The district's maintenance department alsocontributed repair delays.

A 2001 audit of the district's maintenance department found a 10-inch thick report, containing37,000 open work orders, some dated as early as 1997, largely ignored by maintenance directors.

Part of the problem is that in the past 10 years, 158 specialist trade persons have been cut evenas dozens of new schools opened.

"The failure is in the follow-up," said school board member Frank Cobo, who was elected to theboard in 2001 and has been requesting updates on life-safety repairs.

The audit also found maintenance relies heavily on overtime and lacks a system to prioritizeprojects, assigning work in a "somewhat random order" based on the availability of staff andsupplies. And maintenance sometimes spends too much on simple tasks - replacing a door cost thedistrict $1,110, repairing broken sprinkler heads cost $8,061, painting handrails cost $9,697.

"I am overwhelmed by the bureaucracy of it all, the inability to make the right decisionsquickly," said Ed Easton, who chairs a state-appointed oversight board studying school constructionand maintenance.

Stierheim is in negotiations with a private company to oversee maintenance.

In recent months, the school system has studied the safety needs at 185 schools, and has spent$14.6 million installing new fire alarms and In at least dozens of cases, little more than ascrewdriver would have solved the problem. sprinklers in schools. Fifteen schools are gettingequipment now and 37 might next year.

"We've got to keep going until all the work is done," district Facilities Chief Suzanne Marshallsaid. 'Year by year, we'll just have to keep plugging away and doing the work."

WAITING FOR REPAIRS

Meanwhile, 75-year-old Miami High waits for more repairs.

Lopez, the principal, walks the halls of a school he once attended, noting missing fireextinguishers and corroded classroom walls. There's a hole the size of a basketball on the front ofthe school; someone covered it with a metal grate.

Roof leaks have warped the school stage. Teachers lay newspaper down when it rains to keepstudents from slipping.

Lopez, who has worked for the district for 29 years, said his requests for help often gounanswered.

"Sometimes you do all the paperwork and everything that you have to do, and then they say thereare no funds to do it," he said. 'Miami High has been put on the back burner when it comes toupkeep."

Board members say they're committed to repairing the violations.

"I don't want to be around if one child gets burned," Cobo said.

"Forget about a school or more than one child. One is too many."

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