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District in Nevada a role model

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

More than 8,000 new students a year were flooding Clark County Schools, and even more were on theway. In the span of a decade, the Las Vegas-based system with some 120,000 students expected to morethan 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 ofthe 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 bondreferendum in 1988. The school system also built 14 primary learning centers, small buildings toease crowding on existing campuses.

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

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

Clark County has since approved two more bond referendums worth $1.2 billion. The district built145 major school additions, bought up vacant land, spent hundreds of millions on renovationprojects, replaced three inner-city schools, and opened dozens more schools, including 25 in thelast two years alone.

The work was done at a frantic pace.

"We delivered quality schools for a reasonable price," said Dale Scheideman, director of newschools facilities and planning in Clark County. "And we opened schools quickly. Because we wereable 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 andchildren grew up. The hope for upgraded, less crowded schools died as project after projectstumbled, 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 struggleto 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 upcosts. He also wants construction experts to regularly inspect projects - from planning toconstruction to the final occupancy of buildings.

Stierheim is tracking problem construction projects to find out why new buidings had deficienciessuch 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 rebuildthe program. "The overwhelming conclusion is we can do a better job, and that we . . . are committedto doing that," he said. "I hope that people are going to at least have hope that there is a lightat 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 renovateexisting campuses. In 1996, a third bond referendum for $643 million paid for 19 new schools andrenovations.

The district will collect another $3.5 million in tax proceeds over the next 10 years to pay for88 more schools, among other things.

Some of Clark County's success is due to the consistent flow of new money - all told, thedistrict has so far received about $3 billion since 1988. Miami-Dade County Schools have received $6billion, but has many more schools to repair and renovate. Miami-Dade County also uses some of thatmoney 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 inthe desert. The district was often the first to build and had to coordinate water, sewer lines andelectricity.

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

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

Using the same plans and designs saves time and architect fees, and can also cut down onconstruction 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 samedesigns for up to six new schools. Until then, the board only allowed one design for up to threeschools.

Visiedo was voted down.

"I even had an analysis that if we did this for the construction of all schools, I could pay formore 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 prototypesbut 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 schooldesign. The group was recently expanded to 30.

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

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

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

Clark County also built a sophisticated planning unit to determine where to build in a districtspanning 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 howquickly 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 fromscratch in the desert and compete for a limited pool of contractors and construction workers busybuilding the Las Vegas strip. In some cases, the district spent more for new-school constructionthan Miami-Dade County did.

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

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

OTHER COUNTIES

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

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 studyrobotics in a state-of-the-art technology lab. They line-dance in a gym complete with a soundsystem.

Construction took just 15 months because the school was built by the same architect-contractorteam 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," saidTom 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 itsconstruction program.

The district now evaluates general contractors before they're hired and works with a smaller poolof architects. Changes during construction have been scaled back, and the district is no longergiving 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 programdelivered what was promised and more.

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

But Miami-Dade County parents and educators, who in some cases waited years for promisedprojects, 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 andconstruction, 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 largeconstruction projects, rely heavily on prototypes, set a fixed price for projects, provide a bonusfor early completion and stricter penalties for delays.

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

"I believe the School Board senses that in order for something to happen, you have to havechange," London said. "The only thing is how much pressure the board will receive both fromemployees 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 thisreport.

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