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Builders, District at Odds in School-Starved Dade

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The Dade County, Fla., school board is expected to begin dealing this week with its staggering school-building crunch, an issue that in recent years has practically swallowed up the nation's fourth-largest school district.

Recent figures show that the 315,000-student district, which includes Miami, would need to build five elementary schools, two middle schools, and a high school each year to accommodate its annual enrollment growth of about 10,000 students. The district, however, has not been able to come close to keeping that pace, and recently the backlog has forced local officials to begin rethinking housing in certain areas.

The Metro-Dade Commission this month denied a request to build 320 houses in the West Kendall area, a section of the county west of Miami that is attractive to developers but where school officials have had disagreements over the district's intention to build new schools.

The denial marked a pivotal moment in the area's now-chronic population explosion. Observers saw the commissioners' move as an effort to force the school board to seriously address the school shortage. Dade County school administrators said they expect the board to tackle the issue when it meets this week.

"It is a difficult issue because parents obviously don't want to see their children's classrooms getting larger and larger," said Henry C. Fraind, an assistant superintendent for the district. "We are not going to be able to build schools fast enough because the fact is that we just keep getting a lot more Johnnys in every school."

This week's meeting is expected to focus on the district's western boundary and where the board will and will not agree to construct new schools. Area builders use one boundary line for areas off limits to new development, but school officials have drawn their own line, leaving an educational no man's land.

No Easy Answers

The building dilemma may come to a head as the school board finally puts the issue on its agenda. Local developers and real-estate agents have raised complaints about the district's progress; parents, teachers, and others with ties to the area's schools also have had a great deal to say in the matter. (See Education Week, 11/16/94.)

Participants are skeptical that the problem will have any quick or easy answers.

"We've got all sorts of ideas, but at the present time, nobody seems capable of solving the problem," said Charles W. Lennon, the executive director of the Builders Association of South Florida. "Elected school boards have nobody who can think in six digits or come up with real crisis management."

Developers say they are responding to the insatiable demand for housing. They argue that other Florida counties in similar situations have come up with plans for new schools but that Dade County officials have put off designing a strategy.

At W.J. Bryan Elementary School in northeastern Dade County, the school is operating at nearly twice its capacity. The K-6 school has classrooms with between 30 and 35 students for each teacher, and its cafeteria serves lunch for four hours during the middle of the school day.

"Teachers are extremely concerned, and parents are moderately concerned, because everyone feels like they are doing twice as much work," said Nora Brandt, the principal.

The countywide P.T.A. is polling parents on which options they favor to relieve the crowding and will announce the results at this week's board meeting.

Their solutions include expanding the use of year-round schools, accelerating the building program, going to double sessions, and using more portable classrooms.

Builders, meanwhile, say they have offered the district options including private construction of school buildings that would then be leased to the district, allowing it to dodge hefty construction bills.

Even district administrators, however, are reluctant to say how far or in what direction the school board might be inclined to go.

"Immigration never stops here, and we are seeing a lot of births," Mr. Fraind said. "We've been listening as more and more people have talked about this, but now it's up to our school board."

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