Downtown Doral Charter Elementary School shows new vision for local schools

In celebration of a project that will further blur the lines between traditional and charter schools, developer Armando Codina and members of the Miami-Dade School Board joined together in dusty downtown Doral on Tuesday to break ceremonial ground on an 800-student elementary school.

Downtown Doral Charter Elementary School, part of a 120-acre Codina Partners project of luxury condo towers, shops and restaurants, was born from a deal that will result in a new facility that is privately controlled and financed but publicly managed by the school board.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said such an arrangement was unprecedented in charter-friendly Florida, if not the country.

“This is the first time that a district-managed charter school from the ground up is created in the United States of America,” he said. “We are at the forefront of school choice.”

Codina Partners CEO Ana-Marie Codina Barlick said discussions with the district spanned a decade, but that for years talks about the school were unproductive. That changed a few years ago, she said, resulting in a 2012 agreement through which the $3.5 million plot of land at 8390 NW 53rd St. was deeded to the school board.

The nonprofit corporation running the charter school will lease the land back long-term and float $20 million in bonds to finance the project, designed by Zyscovich Architects. In return, the school board agreed to reduce impact fees and will manage the school.

Construction on the school is expected to begin in the summer. Doors should open in the fall of 2015.

Codina Barlick, who sits on the charter school’s governing board, said the developers could have opted for a traditional public school but wanted to maintain some level of control over the school and curriculum. She said she scoured the country, even traveling to California, to find a suitable school operator. In the end, she wanted something similar to what the local school district has accomplished at award-winning magnet school Sunset Elementary.

“I’m not prone to hyperbole, but today marks a historic moment for downtown Doral, and even more importantly for the school system and for education in South Florida,” the elder Codina said before a group of press and politicos at the development’s sales headquarters to the east of the Trump National Doral Miami.

Indeed, Florida’s charter schools — tax-funded public schools that are governed by independent boards rather than a local school board — were created during the 1990s to provide an alternative to traditional schools. But in recent years, school boards have backed and even established charter schools in various ways.

The Miami-Dade school district, for instance, opened the state’s first-ever district-managed charter school three years ago in a vacant Miami Springs district facility. Osceola County schools, through a partner nonprofit foundation, built charter schools in the mid-2000s, tapping into public capital dollars for charters as a way to address booming enrollment on the cheap.

Other districts around the country have backed similar projects, like in Orleans Parish, where the school system used FEMA dollars to build new charter school facilities following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

But Carvalho said this specific type of partnership — which won’t cost the district any money — is on the cutting edge in its concept. At the same time, building a charter school is cheaper than a traditional school because of state regulations.

Ana Rijo-Conde, the district’s deputy chief facilities officer, said the agreement could be a model as other communities look to create their own schools.

When it opens, about half of the school’s student body is expected to be pulled from Doral. Mayor Luigi Boria, in a speech about the history and success of charter schools, said the school’s creation is a boon for the city. He lauded Codina Partners as visionaries.

“To me,” he said, “you are like Walt Disney.”