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Work to start this summer on school bond projects

Starting this summer, most of Miami-Dade’s 300-plus public schools are expected to benefit from brick-and-mortar improvements as the country’s fourth-largest school district rolls out a $1.2 billion plan to fix up aging, neglected campuses.

But with projects slated over a seven-year period, some students, parents and teachers are going to have to wait.

A newly released work schedule that lays out when money will be spent and where shows in specifics what Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and his top administrators began explaining last week: It will be several years before ground breaks on many of the district’s largest projects.

In some cases, they will be among the last to start.

“For everybody, their school is the most important one to them. We perfectly understand that,” said Chief Facilities Officer Jaime Torrens. “It’s just a matter of our ability to do work, and we’re not going to have access to all the money at once. We’d just overload everything. We’re trying to do the ones that have the greatest need first in the procurement vehicles we have now.”

The district has not released specific budgets for the hundreds of projects it plans to undertake, but a five-year capital plan crafted in September put a price on the number of improvements and additions needed at each school. And only two of the two dozen schools identified as having the greatest financial needs will benefit during the first two years of work: Norland Senior High School and Bunche Park Elementary.

Those projects are not to be understated. Norland Senior High, a school that has been waiting for more than five years for a shiny, new campus, is in need of some $32 million in improvements according to the district’s capital plan. Built 55 years ago, classrooms, offices, the auditorium and cafeteria are among the 15 buildings that need to be replaced. Air conditioners need to be fixed. Utilities are scheduled for upgrades.

Construction crews are scheduled to arrive at the school this summer.

“We know that Norland Sr. High School has been neglected for years, and the entire complex faces immediate needs,” said Miami-Dade School Board member Wilbert “Tee” Holloway, whose district includes the school. “They will be addressed in the first round, and we’re very pleased with that.”

However, the remaining 22 schools awaiting large projects, including American High and Miami Northwestern, won’t break ground until at least the 2014-15 school year. Southwest Miami Senior High, which needs about $37 million in work to essentially create an entirely new campus, will see work in three years and then again two years later to finish a project so large it was split into two phases.

Most if not all students currently enrolled at Homestead High, Miami Killian and Skyway Elementary will be gone by the time contractors begin working at those schools in the fifth and sixth years of the district’s schedule.

In the meantime, dozens of schools with comparatively few needs will be first in line for improvements.

Torrens explained Wednesday, and also last week during a bond workshop, that most of the hundreds of first- and second-year projects would be smaller jobs valued at under $2 million because companies already under contract could be tapped to do the work. As the schedule goes on, he said projects would decrease in number and increase in cost.

Torrens said that’s largely due to the time it takes to not only bid out and design larger, more expensive projects but also to sell bonds, and a need to space out design and construction in order to avoid flooding the market and inflating costs. He said Norland is an exception because design work had already been commissioned.

Still, district officials and board members hope to quickly show parents and students some kind of improvement after selling the bond initiative to voters in November by displaying some of the woes in the county’s older schools, half of which were built 40 years ago or earlier. For schools placed on the back burner, those improvements may come in the form of technological improvements or new playgrounds rather than large-scale renovations.

“Every parent is going to walk into a school in Miami-Dade County come August, and they’re going to expect to see a change. That’s the reality,” said board member Raquel Regalado.

The schedule can still change. Board member Carlos Curbelo, for instance, has suggested that the district consider allowing private businesses to pay for projects upfront and then be reimbursed when bonds are sold in order to speed up construction.

But even Curbelo, who represents southwest Dade, calls the current schedule “practical.”

“We need to realize that most people who are supporting and paying into this don’t even have children in the school system," he said. “It’s not about what’s in it for me. It’s about what’s best for the community.”

This article was updated to more accurately reflect a quote by School Board Member Carlos Curbelo.