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Dade Officials Under Fire for Slow Pace Of $980 Million Construction Effort

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School officials in Dade County, Fla., are under fire for building just half of the schools they promised five years ago when voters approved a $980 million bond issue.

Parents and civic leaders have told the school board that they are frustrated with the slow pace of the district's efforts to reduce overcrowding and provide improved facilities.

District officials have responded to the criticism by agreeing to survey the status of each of the hundreds of construction projects now under way. Their findings are expected to be submitted to the school board in a month.

Superintendent Octavio Visiedo conceded last week that many of the promised projects have not been built, and "we are not moving as fast as we would like to be'' on the construction program.

He asserted, however, that most of the delays are not the district's fault, but result largely from the damage inflicted by Hurricane Andrew last summer and the red tape generated by state laws and agencies governing school construction.

"Considering the obstacles that are imposed on us, we are doing a very responsible job at proceeding as expeditiously as possible with our construction program,'' Mr. Visiedo said.

Other municipal officials and community leaders charge, however, that the district appears to be dragging its feet and may be mismanaging its construction program.

"The promise of the bond issue has not been fulfilled,'' Paul D. Novack, the Mayor of the town of Surfside, said. "The situation is producing a crisis in confidence in the public.''

Andrew's Legacy

The district promised to build 49 schools and to carry out renovations or additions in 250 others when the huge bond issue was approved five years ago.

To date, not only have fewer than half the schools been built, but just 31 of the renovations or additions have been completed, school officials acknowledge.

The cost of the school-construction program, meanwhile, has jumped by more than $300 million, according to district figures.

In the meantime, many schools continue to get even more overcrowded. Bay Harbor Elementary in Surfside, for example, was built to accommodate about 380 students, but now houses about 890.

At a school board meeting this month, Mayor Novack presented a resolution from his town commission calling for an independent audit of the district's construction program.

"The numerous unnecessary and continuing delays, inadequate planning, bureaucratic promises, and absence of results on a countywide basis have resulted in a lack of confidence among parents and taxpayers,'' the resolution states.

Board members replied that they were aware of the problem until it was outlined earlier that week in a story in The Miami Herald. They agreed that the construction program needed to be examined.

Mr. Visiedo said last week that construction efforts have been complicated by the fact that residents have abandoned some of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Andrew and have moved elsewhere in the county. As a result, some schools have emptied while others have become overcrowded.

Demand generated by the hurricane has also driven up the costs of construction materials and labor, Mr. Visiedo noted.

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