Coral Gables

Gables officials, residents lament ‘controlled choice’ as hardship

Things got personal at the Coral Gables Youth Center on Wednesday night at a meeting held by the city to discuss controlled choice, a policy established by the Miami-Dade County Public Schools in the 1980s.

Coral Gables is the county’s remaining city still under the program. It was designed to allow parents within a controlled choice attendance boundary to choose their children’s schools by ranking their preferences. However, they might actually get their third choice, and they won’t find out which school their children will attend until right before the school year begins.

Often, residents can live a block away from one school, but end up having to commute across town to another school. Carlos Gomez, a father of five, told his tale about his challenges.

“My children were placed in three different schools,” Gomez said. He added that taking his kids to different schools was a hardship and burden on him and his wife, who live half a mile from Sunset Elementary.

Controlled choice is no longer an active policy in the county, except at three schools in Coral Gables: Coral Gables Preparatory Academy, George Washington Carver Elementary and Sunset Elementary.

Commissioners Patricia Keon and Frank Quesada, along with City Attorney Craig Leen, facilitated a question-and-answer session at the center. Commissioners Bill Kerdyk and Vince Lago, Mayor Jim Cason and City Manager Cathy Swanson-Rivenbark were also there.

The city is calling on school officials to do away with the policy, which they say is deeply affecting residents’ quality of life.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools has yet to tell the city why Coral Gables is the only city under the policy, according to Leen. In November, the city filed a records request asking for the reasons, motives or goals for creating and maintaining the Controlled Choice program at the local three elementary schools while having removed all other county schools from the program.

“We have not seen an adequate reason given,” Leen said. “People who are equally situated should be treated equally. Coral Gables is the only area of the county being treated in this matter. It is a hardship; that does encourage us to get involved.”

Quesada directed a slide show that discussed how controlled choice affects traffic and home purchasing decisions and is the cause of countless inconveniences.

“Most importantly, it affects the sense of community,” he said.

Osamudia James, a University of Miami professor who teaches education law, race and administrative law, sparked some tension at the meeting, calling the City Commission “reckless and irresponsible” for “not knowing the impacts of getting rid of Controlled Choice.”

“How can we make decisions without the commission being clear on how it will affect the community and its residents? That strikes me as irresponsible. You’re doing this at the risk of the well-being of your residents.”

She elaborated, clarifying that the city should do its research on the impact of eliminating controlled choice, rather than leading a town hall meeting advertising the good it would do for residents.

Commissioner Keon was quick to respond.

“I want to assure you that we are not reckless and that we will consider all the comments you made,” Keon said.

Three county teachers also stood up to speak.

“Controlled choice also affects us in a way that it doesn’t many other children in the county,” one of them said. “It brings hardship to us because of the long hours, and the fact that we work at one school and our children go to another across the county. Transfer requests are often declined because of limited space.”

Dozens of residents took turns taking the microphones, telling their stories.

Also discussed were potential changes to the Henry S. West Laboratory School attendance boundaries policy. The city hopes to provide more guaranteed seats for Coral Gables residents.

Because West Lab is a magnet school, it accepts students from all over the county, making it difficult for Coral Gables students to get into a school in their own back yard. About 16 percent of students at West Lab are Coral Gables residents. About half of the more than 500 students on a waiting list for the school are Gables residents.

Sandra Murado, a longtime resident who is running for commissioner in April, thinks that the idea of paying for seats is a “joke.”

“I don't believe the city should pay a fine to go to West Lab,” Murado said. “That’s not how it works. We pay taxes, city taxes, and now we gotta pay out of our coffers? No. If you want to pay to play, you go to Vegas.”

The City Commission contemplated buying seats for the children of residents. Coral Gables officials are considering paying the school district a one-time fee of $23,000 per student to establish a separate lottery program just for residents who want their children to attend West Lab. But commissioners say it’s an exceptional burden.

As it stands now, the oral proposal is to buy between 22 and 44 seats per grade level. Commissioners will soon announce when the next discussion on the issue will be.

Iraida Mendez-Cartaya, associate superintendent for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, was in attendance and said the School Board is considering replacing this policy so that students would be assigned based on geographic boundary lines, which will be drawn by School Board staff with input from the community.

They will hold community meetings starting Jan. 22 through Jan. 29.

For Gables resident David Pollack though, the solution is very simple.

“Let’s fill up a bus and go to Tallahassee; fight it there,” he said. “No, seriously.”

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