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$1 Billion School-Building Program Cannot Keep Up With Dade Students

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School officials in Dade County, Fla., have abandoned hope that a school-construction program financed by the district's 1988 record-breaking $1 billion bond issue will relieve its chronic immigrant-driven overcrowding.

The nation's fourth-largest district, with 315,000 students, Dade County has seen its ambitious building program derailed by 1992's Hurricane Andrew, new government regulations, and what critics have described as mismanagement.

Those problems, and a surge of immigrants from South America, Central America, and the Caribbean countries that is helping swell enrollment by 10,000 students a year, have forced the district to seek new options.

The school board recently ordered district officials to accelerate study of year-round schooling, double sessions, and leasing of commercial space as options for overcrowded schools.

And, school officials do not rule out going to the taxpayers again, hat in hand.

"We're going to have to tell the public at some point, 'We have given you back what you have given us,"' said Henry C. Fraind, an assistant superintendent of schools and a spokesman for the district.

What voters gave the school district in 1988 was approval to issue a $980 million bond, the largest school-bond issue ever until the passage last week of a $1.5 billion bond measure in Detroit. (See related story )

Scuttled Plans

At the time, school officials said the money would fuel a five-year construction program of 250 renovation projects, including 49 new schools. But delays and cost overruns have stalled that program, while hundreds of new projects have been added to the list.

Last month, The Miami Herald surveyed school-construction records and concluded that 195 of the district's 731 construction projects are over budget. The total cost of the program has jumped to $1.68 billion, the newspaper said, yet less than half of the 49 new schools promised have been built.

Dade County school officials do not dispute these numbers. But they contend that after the bond passed, two stronger powers intervened: Mother Nature and government.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew devastated large parts of southern Florida and left Dade schools with roughly(See Education Week, 11/18/92.)

"It really shut down our [school-construction] program for an entire year," said Craig Sturgeon, the assistant superintendent for facilities management.

Andrew did most of its damage in the southern part of the county and drove families--and students--north, forcing the district to reconfigure its construction plans, Mr. Sturgeon said.

Legislative blows delivered by Congress and the Florida legislature have caused as much harm as the storm did, officials said.

When the federal Americans with Disabilities Act took effect in 1992, crews working in several new schools had to rip out completed work to build elevators, expand bathroom stalls, and construct ramp entrances.

Also after the bond issue was approved, the legislature passed a law that shifted the cost of site improvements--building sewer lines, water mains, and roads, for example--to the schools, Mr. Sturgeon said.

Despite these obstacles, the district has opened 26 new schools, and 28 are under construction or on the drawing board.

School critics, however, contend that district officials have been slow to recognize the problem of overcrowding and have mismanaged funds from the bond issue.

"There is a lot of p.r. going on and not a lot of actually doing something about bringing schools on line," charged Paul D. Novack, the Mayor of Surfside, Fla., and the school-construction representative for the Dade League of Cities.

Mr. Novack has pushed the school board for an audit of the district's handling of the bond issue. Recently the board yielded, agreeing to permit the state auditor to study whether interest on the bond issue has been reinvested in construction or diverted for general revenues.

Educators, Not Builders

School officials acknowledged making mistakes in managing the program.

"School personnel are experts in how to run schools, not in construction," said Rosa Castro Feinberg, a school board member.

Even a perfect program could not build enough space to handle the booming enrollment, officials said. New construction is providing space for 6,000 additional students a year, Mr. Sturgeon said.

But Dade is picking up almost twice that number of students every year.

"At this point in Dade County, we can't open up schools fast enough," Mr. Fraind said. "We're running at full speed, and every time you open a school, it's full."

All but 35 of the district's 270 schools are filled beyond capacity. Administrators are juggling schedules and scrambling to find space for classes.

At Miami Coral Park Senior High, where 3,600 students fill the school to 36 percent beyond capacity, health-education teachers hold discussions about such intimate subjects as aids and sexuality in the school's auditorium.

"You can only do so much," said William Machado, an assistant vice principal at the school. "It's like when you have only so many buckets and so much water to put into the buckets."

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