The Coral Gables City Commission voted Tuesday to deny a Miami-Dade County Public Schools expansion plan for the Henry S. West Laboratory School, but the city’s denial won’t necessarily hold up the project.
For years, the school district has had the authority to develop its schools without city approval, but traditionally has sought recommendations from city leaders and staff before renovating or building new additions.
But now the commission wants a greater say in school construction projects. Last week the city issued a cease and desist letter to the school district demanding that no construction happen on the site.
“I don’t trust the school district,” said Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli. “I insist on asserting our rights.”
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The plans call for building new classrooms to accommodate more students, a proposal that the city has also considered investing millions in to do on its own.
Luis Garcia, the school district’s deputy attorney, argued that when the district did renovations and building at Coral Gables Senior High and International Studies Preparatory Academy in the past there were no issues.
“In this instance we feel that this project fits the city code. I think all of the requirements have been met,” Garcia said.
Commissioner Michael Mena said that while he recognized the school district’s authority, the city should have more of a say in the future.
“We simply are subject to providing suggestions to you, that’s problematic for us,” Mena said. “We do need it to go through the appropriate process so that we can make sure that we know the impact it’s going to have on our community.”
The commission voted 4-0 to deny the district’s plans. Commissioner Vince Lago did not vote as his construction firm has done business with the school district.
The cease and desist letter states that if the district doesn’t comply, it will be fined $500 a day.
Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, a schools spokeswoman, said the district’s attorneys are reviewing the letter but did not say whether the district will stop work at the site.
“At the highest levels of the school system, there will continue to be productive dialogue that strikes a balance between serving the needs of the school district as a whole and those of the community,” Gonzalez-Diego said in a statement.
The city’s action follows years of discussion over how the school will be developed amid efforts from the city to increase the representation of Coral Gables students at the school. The district’s expansion plan comes as Coral Gables continues work on a proposal to purchase seats at the school.
West Lab, as it’s commonly known, is a public K-8 magnet school that’s open to applicants from across the county. Almost 400 students are on the school’s waiting list and Gables leaders have considered a $4.2 million plan to create more classrooms and seats at the school, earmarked for about 180 students from the city. Coral Gables residents would pay a one-time cost of about $23,000 to guarantee that a slot at West Lab goes to their student.
That plan remains under negotiation and does not have a set timetable for consideration or potential approval.
The school district’s application calls for a one-story, 8,000 square-foot addition for new classrooms. The work also includes demolition of a storage building that would be replaced with smaller storage facilities that would be attached to the physical education shelter and new courts.
City staff had recommended approval of the district’s plan — if the school district received approval from the city’s historic preservation board before doing any demolition, completed a traffic study and added a crossing guard. The city’s planning board didn’t make a recommendation.
Commissioners did approve a resolution Tuesday geared at organizing a joint meeting between the City Commission and the school board to resolve the issue. If those efforts are unsuccessful, the city might consider legal action.
“Nobody wants this to be adversarial,” Mena said.
Miami Herald staff writer Kyra Gurney contributed to this story.
This post has been updated to clarify Commissioner Michael Mena’s statement.