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Dade County Seeks Federal Aid To Deal With Nicaraguan Influx

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Saying they are being overwhelmed by a new and unexpected influx of Nicaraguan immigrants, Dade County, Fla., education officials have launched an intensive lobbying effort to bring more federal aid to Miami-area schools.

Dade County school-board members met with Florida's Congressional delegates in Washington last week to ask for help in dealing with what officials describe as "a crisis of major proportions."

In 1987-88, county schools coped with an unexpected 3,379 Nicaraguan students. Another 4,657 are predicted by the end of 1989. That means, Dade officials say, that their schools are having to absorb some 500 new Nicaraguan students each month this year.

Last month alone, however, 889 Nicarguan students enrolled in the county, according to James Fleming, assistant superintendent for community and management services. Over all, enrollment in the district--the nation's fourth-largest--will rise to 266,583 this year, up from 253,984 in 1987-88.

In addition to problems with overcrowding, a shortage of bilingual programs, and racial tension, school officials say they face skyrocketing expansion costs.

Short-term temporary classroom space for the new students is expected to cost about $14 million. "Some schools already look like Army barracks," said Mr. Fleming.

And long-term construction costs are expected to top $104 million.

"We're really in a bind," said Michael M. Krop, chairman of the Dade County school board, who described the situation as an example of "taxation without representation."

"We have no input into federal immigration policies, and yet we're among those most affected," he said.

"We're really indignant because we feel we are a premier school system today," he added. "We've reformed education here, we've paid teachers, and now the federal government is trying to undermine everything we've accomplished."

Most Illegal Aliens

The collapse of the Nicaraguan economy amid the country's revolutionary turmoil has driven thousands of immigrants into the United States in the past two years.

This year alone, more than 100,000 Nicaraguans are expected to cross the border, with more than half of them headed for Miami.

Many who enter the country are deemed to be political refugees, but most are simply illegal aliens.

Dade County school officials do not, however, make an issue of the legal status of students. The district has adopted a policy to encourage all school-age children to enroll.

In fact, the district this year sent representatives to the local baseball stadium to register children of the hundreds of families being housed there temporarily.

"We're not saying that these children are not welcome," said Richard H. Hinds, associate superintendent for financial affairs. "We're just saying that we didn't create this. If federal policy impacts one area so strongly, then the federal government should pay for it."

'About To Blow Up'

Mr. Fleming said that the need for special language and counseling services raises the average cost of educating an immigrant student to about $3,930, compared with $2,600 for a regular student.

The state reimburses the district for all but $700 per student. But the state does not pay for building costs.

Dade County residents are currently taxed to state limits for school construction, Mr. Hinds added.

Last year, residents approved the largest local bond issue in U.S. history--$980 million to build 49 new schools.

About $120 million worth of school construction and renovation projects are currently on the drawing board, he said.

But when school officials estimated the district's needs prior to the bond issue, they did not anticipate the sharp increase in Nicaraguan students.

"It's not as if we can go back and ask the taxpayers for more money," Mr. Fleming said. "We're already concerned about breaking faith with the people who already agreed to tax themselves."

Instead, temporary classrooms have been set up all over the county to ease overcrowding in its 280 schools. One school has rented space in a local synagogue.

Mr. Krop said that the district already offers classes year round and that officials are now also considering double sessions--a morning and an afternoon shift.

But the unavoidable overcrowding is producing human stresses that are equally worrisome, school officials said last week.

Black students, already irate over what they view as the unnecessarily harsh treatment accorded Haitian immigrants in Miami, resent what appears to them a much warmer government welcome for Nicaraguans, they said.

G. Holmes Braddock, vice chairman of the school board and one of those who met with federal officials last week, described the school system as a "tinderbox" of racial tension that is "about to blow up."

Not A New Problem

The problems that accompany a large influx of immigrants are not new to Dade County officials.

In the 1960's, federal policy allowed thousands of Cuban political refugees into the country. But that policy was followed up by a generous financial-assistance package of more than $15 million a year, according to Mr. Hinds.

"That's what we'd like to see," said Mr. Braddock. "As Presidents Kennedy and Johnson did in the 1960's, President Bush has got to say, 'We are going to take care of it."'

The $15 million in aid was eliminated in the 1970's, however.

When the Mariel boat lift brought more Cuban and Haitian political refugees to the country in 1980, the school system saw an increase of about 15,000 students in five months, Mr. Fleming said.

That situation was responded to by a federal assistance program, targeted specifically to Dade County, offering about $4 million a year for incoming Cuban and Haitian students.

The district still receives that funding, as well as an additional $2- million from the Emergency Immigration Education Act of 1984 and the Transition Program for Refugee Children.

Yet Mr. Hinds argues that the $6- million in aid will be a "drop in the bucket," and that most of the funding is limited to supplying services to students, not building new schools.

Aid Increase Sought

Like the aid provided for the district's Haitian and Cuban students, Mr. Hinds said district officials are pushing for targeted funds specifically for Nicaraguan pupils. They have not put a dollar figure on the amount of federal aid they would like to receive.

Last week, the Council of Great City Schools sent a proposal to Capitol Hill calling on the U.S. Education Department to double funding for the Emergency Immigration Education Program, from its current level of $29.6 million to $60 million.

Michael Casserly, legislative and research director for the council, said the organization was also trying to rally member districts facing similar problems with incoming immigrants to join the lobbying effort.

In addition, the council is surveying large urban districts across the country to develop a national picture of the immigrant problem.

Mr. Braddock said Dade County officials plan to approach school-board members in California and Texas, which also receive federal assistance, to create a united lobbying front for an increase in funds.

According to a spokesman for Senator Lloyd Bentsen, Democrat of Texas, Texas schools have not been as severely affected by the recent influx of immigrants because they tend to move on to Florida and California.

Lila Silvern, coordinator of the federal assistance programs for immigrant students in Los Angeles County schools, said officials there counted 50,601 recent-immigrant students in the district as of last March. That figure included only students who had been enrolled in the district three years or less.

When district officials count immigrant students again next month, they expect to find the number much higher, she said.

Currently, Los Angeles County receives about $3.4 million in Emergency Immigration Education Program funds. Ms. Silvern said district officials plan to ask for an increase this year, but the details of their plan have not yet been determined.

Quayle To Visit

Mr. Braddock noted that Dade County may need the political support of districts such as Los Angeles to loosen Washington's purse strings.

In their meetings on Capitol Hill last week, Mr. Braddock said Dade officials found Florida's Congressional delegates "sympathetic."

But what really is needed, he said, is support from the President.

Vice President Dan Quayle was scheduled to visit Drew Elementary School in Dade County last Friday to commend the faculty there on reforming what was once a struggling inner-city school.

The school is one of the few in the county with almost no immigrant students, Mr. Braddock pointed out.

Although school officials planned to "pull on Mr. Quayle's ear" about the immigrant issue, Mr. Braddock said he doubted that the Vice President would have the time to visit any other schools.

Could Taper Off

The influx of Nicaraguan immigrants into the country may slow down after Feb. 20, federal officials say. Until December, the government had encouraged Nicaraguans to apply for political asylum and obtain work permits. But many abused the system, officials argue, and scattered throughout the country untracked.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service attempted to tighten procedures for seeking asylum, detaining incoming Nicaraguans in Texas.

The refugees sued, and a federal judge blocked the ins from enforcing its stricter policy until after Feb. 20.

But U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh has announced that, after Feb. 20, he will ask law-enforcement officials again to detain Nicaraguan refugees at the Texas border until their asylum claims are decided. The attorney general also said he was developing options for aid to communities affected by incoming refugees.

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