Education

New mega charter school near the Palmetto and Sunset? Not so fast, neighbors say

Madeleine Munilla has lived in her home off Sunset Drive for 35 years. But if plans move forward to build a charter school for more than 2,000 students across the street, Munilla said she will be forced to move elsewhere.

“I love my neighborhood. We all love the neighborhood,” she said. “But it’s way too much.”

Traffic in the mornings in the area, just east of the Palmetto Expressway, is already bumper-to-bumper, Munilla said. She worries that hundreds of additional cars and a school speed zone would cause even worse gridlock. And she’s not alone. Dozens of neighbors have banded together and hired a lawyer to fight the creation of the school, a Somerset Academy on land owned by Christ Journey Church that would house as many as 2,500 students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The city of South Miami has also joined the fight. Although the proposed school site sits on a 19-acre vacant lot in unincorporated Miami-Dade County north of Dadeland Mall, South Miami leaders worry that increased traffic congestion would keep police and ambulances from passing through the area, which is near two hospitals. Last May, the city commission passed a resolution urging county commissioners to block plans to build the school.

It’s a battle that has played out across Miami-Dade County as residents frustrated by clogged roadways organize against the creation of new charter schools and the expansion of existing ones. It’s a battle they don’t often win. Homeowners in East Kendall fought the expansion of a Somerset Academy at 9500 SW 97th Ave. for four years, spending $40,000 before finally striking a deal to cap enrollment at 675 students. In Coral Gables, neighbors went toe-to-toe with Somerset over plans to increase the number of students at another school to 700, getting the charter network to agree to a maximum of 260 pupils. These Somerset schools, like others in Miami-Dade, are tied to charter giant Academica, which provides support services.

The dispute over the school proposed near the intersection of Sunset, also known as Southwest 72nd Street, and Southwest 72nd Ave. is complicated by a rare patch of pine rockland, a delicate forest habitat that spills onto the property. Two acres of the forest, which Somerset has vowed to protect, would be on the school grounds, while another 10 acres sit directly behind the site.

Erin Clancy, the conservation director at the Tropical Audubon Society, said the group is concerned about how the school’s presence will complicate efforts to protect the forest.

“There’s also the effects of encroachment of civilization butting up against wild lands — the latter always suffers,” Clancy said in an email. “The disruption factors of twice-daily student drop-offs and pick-ups producing traffic, noise and exhaust fumes are difficult to measure, but the endangered and threatened species that depend on this sensitive habitat for survival will likely be negatively impacted.”

Not everyone in the neighborhood is upset about the plans, however. Some residents said they would welcome having another school nearby.

Raul Martinez Jr. lives a block from the site and has two children at a nearby Somerset school, SoMi. When Martinez bought his home a few years ago, he said the promise of another neighborhood Somerset was a selling point. “We’ve been extremely pleased with Somerset as a whole,” he said. “If a little more traffic is the hardship we’re going to carry to have better school choices in the neighborhood, I think it’s a small price to pay.”

Kellee Cueto, a South Miami resident who lives about two miles from the site and sends two of her children to SoMi, agrees that a new school would be a positive for the area.

“In my experience having quality school choice is something that a lot of businesses look to when they’re looking to relocate,” she said. “The fact that it’s there as an additional option would only mean good things from an economic perspective.”

But the Sunset Neighbors group argues that there’s no need for another school in an area already dotted with public, private and religious options, many of them with space for more children. Within a three-mile radius of the proposed site, there are 13 public and charter schools, only three of which are at or above capacity, according to data provided by the Miami-Dade school district. Another seven religious and secular private schools are also within three miles.

“They need to take the charter school where it’s needed,” said Lily Lopez, who lives near the proposed school site. “We are overburdened with schools.”

When it comes to school choice, however, it’s not about how many schools are already in the area, said Lynn Norman-Teck, the executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance, who spoke to the Miami Herald on Somerset’s behalf. It’s about finding the right fit. “Once you’re a school choice parent, you’re going to be interested to see what else is out there,” she said.

Norman-Teck said Somerset is taking steps to accommodate neighbors, like giving enrollment preference to families who live close to the campus and providing incentives for parents who agree to carpool. She said the school architect has also designed a traffic plan that would keep as many cars as possible on school property while parents drop off and pick up their kids.

“Somerset, if you look at their track record here, we’re talking about 20 years of serving kids in Florida,” she said. “They are good neighbors. They try to accommodate the neighbors as best they can.”

But for resident Mary Faraldo, the charter school is not who she wants next door. The area is zoned for single-family homes and Faraldo argues that the vacant lot should be used to build more of them, or turned into a neighborhood park. The county commission passed a resolution in 1997 granting the lot owner, the University Baptist Church of Coral Gables, now known as Christ Journey Church, permission to build a church and a day nursery limited to 98 children.

Somerset signed a lease with the church in 2015 and is asking the county commission to approve a special exception allowing a charter school for up to 2,500 students, in addition to a church that will be built on the property. A hearing is set for April 20.

In the meantime, neighbors say they will continue to protest and put pressure on county commissioners to oppose the zoning exception.

“This school doesn’t serve this community,” resident Lopez said. “It’s acre-lot houses. That’s what we invested in when we bought our homes.”

UPDATE: After this story was published, several readers contacted the Herald to point out that Raul Martinez Jr. is a former volunteer Somerset board member. Martinez said that because his previous association with the charter school network is public knowledge, he did not feel it was necessary to disclose the association.

Miami Herald staff writer Jenny Staletovich contributed to this report.

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