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Broken promises marred last Miami-Dade bond issue for schools

Years of school construction delays. Hundreds of millions in cost overruns. Broken promises. Shoddy construction.

Those were the headlines from the last time Miami-Dade voters agreed to pay extra property taxes to fund school construction and renovation.

When the measure passed in 1988, the $980 million bond was the largest ever in the country for school construction. It was meant to relieve crowded classrooms in the boom times of real-estate development and growth.

That program will end in 2017. Now, the Miami-Dade school system wants to launch a new one to fix aging buildings and modernize technology. Schools like Hialeah Senior High have cracks in the walls. Miami Norland Senior High has outdated electrical panels. Shenandoah Elementary needs plumbing.

Voters will decide Nov. 6 whether to approve a $1.2 billion bond issue that would be repaid over 30 years with an additional property tax..

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is staking his legacy on a promise: No waste. No delay. No communities left out.

“We’re relying on four years of unparalleled performance, both on the financial side as well as the academic side,” he said. “The best predictor of future success is past performance.”

In the end, the previous bond did get new schools built, including Barbara Goleman Senior High in Miami Lakes, Turner Tech in North Miami-Dade and Coral Reef Senior High in Southwest Miami-Dade, and others got renovated. The Miami Herald requested an analysis of the results of the 1988 bond issue, including a final work list and how the money was spent. School district spokesman John Schuster said a report is expected to be released in the days ahead.

Many community leaders have pledged support for the new bond, despite the mistakes of the past.

In the 1980s, Miami-Dade County was booming, and schools were crowded, with 10,000 new students or more enrolling every year. Then-Superintendent Joe Fernandez campaigned for the bond. It narrowly passed, winning support from black, white and Jewish voters, but Hispanic voters wary of taxes largely rejected it.

Quickly, the massive program flagged under changing leadership. A young deputy, Octavio Visiedo, became superintendent in 1990 and took over the program. An out-of-town joint venture, CRSS/WRJ, had been hired to manage the construction, with school district employees forming a second management group. But projects weren’t getting done, and Visiedo fired the firm.

“It was just a disaster,” he said. “It was a very rough-and-tumble beginning.”

Tracking system

G. Holmes Braddock, who served on the School Board for more than 30 years, blamed the outside management firm: “Trying to go outside to make everybody feel better was probably the worst thing we did.”

Visiedo said staff created a new tracking system, giving the first snapshot of projects and cost.

While the district got organized, projects fell more behind.

In 1993, five years after the bond issue passed, The Miami Herald detailed a host of problems: changing priorities, population shifts, mismanagement and Hurricane Andrew, which caused unanticipated damage.

According to the report, fewer than half of the 49 promised new schools were completed and only 31 of the 250 schools pegged for renovations and additions were complete.

Some favored projects moved faster, like MAST Academy near Key Biscayne, which was built two years early and cost an extra $8.6 million.

Meanwhile, black voters were promised 22 new schools for their neighborhoods. But in five years, they saw only seven built, five projects moved to the end of the schedule and others set to open late, like Van E. Blanton Elementary in North Dade. Some complained that suburban communities with political clout, like the Kendall Federation of Homeowner Associations, got special treatment.

Ten years later, in 2003, the situation had worsened. A Miami Herald investigation revealed a crisis: tens of millions of dollars wasted, building projects delayed, poor-performing builders repeatedly hired, schools with construction defects that opened despite warnings from inspectors, and overwhelmed maintenance crews. More than 160 Miami-Dade schools had leaky roofs, cracked walls and broken fire alarms.

In 2004, independent auditors blasted the facilities department for gross waste and massive mismanagement, including: capital funds rolled over year-to-year and used for non-capital expenses; awarding contracts to small local contractors who were not equipped for the work; and tens of millions in waste.

Norland case study

For some, the previous bond still stirs strong feelings, especially in the black community, where even Carvalho recognizes there were broken promises.

Case in point: Miami Norland Senior High built in 1958 in Miami Gardens. It was on the original list for a major renovation, addition or remodeling. It ended up with a new gym, in 2006, nearly 20 years after the bond was approved. The gym now has cracks in the sheetrock. Teachers have complained about mold. Milton Parris, a Miami-Dade firefighter and president of Norland’s alumni association, said he doesn’t know why his alma mater was passed over.

“I am sure most of these schools have been promised things they never received. A lot of money for these schools was taken and put to other schools,” he said.

On a recent tour, Principal Luis Solano showed reporters, Carvalho, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and other politicians the school’s glaring defects: rust on ceiling tiles, an old fuse box, the ailing AC in the auditorium, the cafeteria that can serve only 223 students, out of some 1,700, at a time. No one could explain why Norland did not get the renovation promised in the last bond issue. The tour’s last stop contrasted the old with the new: the tech-savvy iPrep magnet installed this year in Norland’s old gym, at a cost of $286,000 from the district’s capital budget. It is wireless and equipped for modern technology.

Several alumni leaders insist on a documented timeline and cost estimates for projects this time.

“We’ve learned our lesson,” said Larry Williams, alumni president for Miami Northwestern High.

New promises

Times have changed since 1988. Construction costs are lower. Schools aren’t as crowded, with enrollment on the decline.

But funding from the state for construction and repairs has dried up. Buildings have deteriorated. Most schools lack wiring and other infrastructure for technology.

Carvalho vows equity, with the schools with the biggest need first in line. Schools like Norland and Hialeah High.

“I’ve looked at the data, 23 years prior to this administration, the equity to certain segments of this community was not there,” he said. “And that’s something that we need to address moving forward.”

Carvalho’s plan includes:

•  A school-by-school needs list.



•  A quick rollout, with the bulk of the projects under way in the first six years.



•  An annual impact to the taxpayer that will not exceed $35 per $100,000 of assessed real estate value during the 30-year payback.



•  A 23-member oversight advisory committee.



•  Revamped ethics rules.



•  An overhaul of the policies for doing business with small firms and those owned by women and minorities.



Interest rates are low and fierce competition in the busted economy could bring bargain prices. At the same time, the district has weathered the recession, cut administrative costs, lowered taxes and gotten national recognition for student gains. Chief facilities officer Jaime Torrens said the district is planning a timely rollout and tracking systems have improved. Community awareness of the need is a huge difference this time, he said.

Still worth it?

Many residents, local municipalities, business groups like the Beacon Council, and powerful trade groups like the Latin Builders Association have pledged support. Even some who remember the troubles from the last one are willing to pay.

Kimberly Bogan, who supports the bond, works at Dante B. Fascell Elementary — built under the 1988 bond and opened in 1995 — but her nephew attends Lenora B. Smith Elementary, which is more than 30 years old.

“The physical plant conditions are night and day,” she said. “I am shocked, saddened and disappointed every time I have to visit their school ... Although my school is much younger, I remember that our roof leaks began the first year the school was opened.”

Karen Aronowitz, president of the United Teachers of Dade, said she campaigned for the 1988 bond as a parent with kids in overcrowded classes at Sunset Elementary. “It was a necessity then, for whatever went right and wrong, and it is a necessity now, and I think it will go forward much more smoothly,” Aronowitz said. “I think our district has come miles in terms of having appropriate oversight.”

School Board member Marta Pérez said she’s “ambivalent because, of course, I want our schools to be in the best condition possible. However, I worry about the potential for corruption inherent in a large capital infusion, and this infusion is funded by taxpayers.”

For the first year, 2013, homeowners would pay $5 per $100,000 of assessed value for the new bond, in addition to the $23 for every $100,000 of assessed value for the existing one, which ends in 2017. For the full term of the new program, a homeowner would pay an average of $27 for every $100,000 of assessed value, up to the maximum of $35.

Miami-Dade resident Kim Newlin said she does not support the new bond — she can’t afford it, “being on a fixed income,” and questioned if there are more schools than needed for kids. Her suggestion: “Close some [schools] and use the savings to fix up the rest.”

This article includes comments from members of The Miami Herald’s Public Insight Network. To learn more about the network or to join, visit MiamiHerald.com/insight.

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