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Deal revised for MAST Academy expansion

A new course is taking shape for Miami-Dade’s prestigious marine-themed, waterfront magnet, MAST Academy, under a revised proposal brokered last week by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

The revamped deal preserves the district-wide lottery that has awarded seats to students who work hard, meet the entrance criteria -- and have a bit of luck -- to win a coveted seat. MAST’s curriculum would remain the same.

“Everybody will have the same chance of getting in as they do now,” said Helen Blanch, the district’s assistant superintendent for school choice.

But the campus would add two other rigorous academies with 1,100 seats and give Key Biscayne residents priority to those.

The new combination school could be baptized with a new name: MAST Academy @Virginia Key.

The controversy over MAST Academy has been roiling since the last week of school, when a proposal surfaced between the school district and the village of Key Biscayne. The original proposal would have tripled the size of the nationally recognized MAST and give Key residents priority to the new 1,100 seats.

Opponents of the deal, including some of MAST’s original founders, said it smacked of selling seats and contradicted the original mission of the magnet to reach inner-city kids .

The deal stems from a cash crunch for the district and a space crunch for Key Biscayne. The village has offered to pay millions to the district so it can have a high school option closer to the island and get upgrades to its crowded and aging K-8 Center.

The revised proposal maintains the financing: the village would pay the upfront cost and the district would share the debt payments after the first eight years. The $18 million-plus deal would build a new facility on the MAST campus and improve the Key Biscayne K-8 Center.

The move to keep the lottery system is a major win for the MAST community, which has fought vehemently expanding the 560-seat high school and easing access to village residents.

“The lottery is going to be protected -- which is great, which is what we wanted,” said Raul Sanchez de Varona, whose daughter will be a freshman at MAST in August. “What I was against all the time was preferential treatment to Key residents just because they willing to pay the School Board $10 million dollars. That I had a philosophical problem with.”

Key Biscayne Mayor Franklin Caplan said he backed the idea of additional programs, which was discussed at a meeting in late June.

Caplan said the idea of “separate but unequal” schools was not acceptable for the village, because it would lessen the education and the experience. He said of the refined proposal: “It’s an additional program within the same school.”

For decades, the village has sought another high school option. Key Biscayne students are zoned to attend Coral Gables Senior High, which is over the Rickenbacker Causeway, more than 10 miles away.

The Village Council gave preliminary approval at its meeting last Tuesday to the agreement and financing with the district. The agreement approved was not the final one; the council will hold a special meeting next Tuesday.

Other parts of the revised proposal:

The Miami-Dade School Board is expected to review the superintendent’s recommendation at a July 11 meeting. The board gave the initial OK to expand MAST in June, but asked the superintendent to bring the item back. Carvalho said he was open to new ideas, but that the status quo was not acceptable.