Coral Gables considering paying for more access to local public school

Coral Gables is considering buying seats — set aside just for the children of residents — at a soon-to-be expanded Henry S. West Laboratory public elementary school.

Referred to as West Lab, the Gables school is a magnet program that accepts students from all over Miami-Dade County. That makes it difficult for Coral Gables kids to get into a school in their own backyard, city officials and parents say.

“In my neighborhood, everyone goes to private,” said Dave Kelly, a Coral Gables resident. “It’s not because they don’t want to go to public schools. They just can’t get in.”

To give residents a better shot at landing a seat, Coral Gables officials on Friday discussed 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. As it stands now, the proposal is to buy between 22 and 44 seats per grade level.

“We believe the school district has an obligation to us to provide enough seats to educate the children in our community,” said Coral Gables Commissioner Patricia Keon.

The arrangement would not be a first. In a deal that was controversial at the time, Key Biscayne paid about $9 million for an expansion of the nationally-recognized MAST Academy in exchange for local preference.

School Board member Raquel Regalado, who represents the city, said about 16 percent of students currently at West Lab are Coral Gables residents. About half of the more than 500 people on a waiting list for the school are city residents, she said.

“We have to demystify the belief that Coral Gables residents do not go to public schools because they don’t want to,” Regalado said. “The fact that it’s an affluent community does not mean they should not be offered options.”

More than half of the students in Miami-Dade go to a school they picked, such as a charter or magnet program — rather than the neighborhood school dictated by attendance boundaries. Regalado said what’s happening in places like Coral Gables show one downside to that trend.

“We are actually doing damage to the very economic base that supports our cities,” Regalado said. “The traditional model is when people move into an area, the first question they ask is about the schools.”

The district is also considering expanding West Lab to add middle school grades. Regalado said she wants to build a bigger, brand new campus through a partnership with Baptist Hospital. The hospital would pay the district to build parking spots on the West Lab campus. The parking spots would also be available for West Lab to use.

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