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Published in Print: March 19, 2003, as Oversight Looms for Miami School Construction

Oversight Looms for Miami School Construction

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After a state-appointed board urged Florida lawmakers this month to strip the Miami-Dade County district of control over its troubled school construction program, the district's superintendent announced a reorganization plan last week.

Merrett R. Stierheim's latest administrative shake-up is an attempt to make the 366,000-student district, the nation's fourth-largest, more responsive to the community and less bureaucratic.

"We want all our constituents to not only feel welcome, but to be encouraged to become involved," the superintendent said in a news release.

The plan, which Mr. Stierheim unveiled during a March 11 press conference, includes the appointment of a new chief education officer whose focus on curriculum and instruction is expected to free the superintendent to tackle the district's business woes.

But some critics believe the administrative changes—the second overhaul in Mr. Stierheim's 16-month tenure—will have little effect on a potential state takeover of the construction program.

"I believe his move to redo the reorganization is too little, too late," said Edward W. Easton, the chairman of the state-appointed oversight board charged with monitoring Miami-Dade's construction and maintenance programs.

Troubled Land Deals

The six-member oversight board was established by the Florida legislature in 2001, following a series of controversial land deals by the district. The watchdog group's members—half named by the legislature and half by the governor—labored to unravel the myriad construction, land-purchase, and building-maintenance problems plaguing the Miami-Dade County schools.

A series of articles published by TheMiami Herald last month highlighted the construction crisis. The newspaper reported that the district had wasted millions of dollars on shoddy construction projects, had lost thousands of days in construction time because of poor planning or builder error, and had hired inexperienced architects.

Paul Novak, a member of the oversight board and the mayor of Surfside, Fla., contends that the district is "completely dysfunctional" and that the school board is committed to maintaining the status quo.

"Every new school they have been able to build has been defective," Mr. Novak charged in an interview last week. "All the older schools are rotting. You reach a point of being disgusted. Money is being squandered."

Frustrated members of the oversight board voted 4-2 during a March 5 meeting to ask state lawmakers to transfer control of the district's construction program to a state-run land-acquisition and construction authority. The board also has discussed recommending that the legislature split the school system into smaller, more manageable districts.

Mr. Easton, the board chairman and a real estate developer, said the problems in the construction program are so entrenched and have occurred for so long that a drastic, "sea-changing" effort is necessary.

'Blindsided'?

Still unclear was whether a state constitutional amendment would be required to seize control of the program, or whether approval by the legislature would be enough.

Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, is open to all options that would reform the construction program, said Alia Faraj, a spokeswoman for the governor. Mr. Bush appointed three members of the oversight panel, while the Republican-controlled legislature named the other three.

Some observers who are critical of the possible shift in control believe that Mr. Stierheim, a former Dade County manager who oversaw the construction of several large public projects, including the Miami Metrozoo and a mass-transit system, has not been given a fair chance to solve the district's construction ailments.

Mr. Novak countered: "What's the definition of a chance? This has nothing to do with any one person."

But Dr. Michael M. Krop, a dentist who is the district school board chairman, said he felt "blindsided" by the oversight board's recommendation. The school board has made many of the changes suggested by the oversight panel, he said. In fact, he said oversight board members have praised the district's restructuring of its land-acquisition program.

The school board also approved the hiring of a private contractor to run its beleaguered maintenance department last week. The oversight board had wanted the entire department, including the employees, to be placed under a private firm.

Dr. Krop said he sensed that the oversight board wanted to see changes more quickly.

"This will just add another layer of bureaucracy," Dr. Krop said of the suggested new construction and land-acquisition authority. "That's what we're trying to cut through now."

Meanwhile, district's new organization plan transforms its six regional offices into Area Community Centers for Educational Support Services, or ACCESS centers, that will be geared toward community outreach. The school board approved Superintendent Stierheim's plan last week.

Mr. Stierheim tapped Miami-Dade educator Mercedes Toural to become the chief education officer and deputy superintendent of schools. Ms. Toural, who has spent 30 years in education, had been the associate superintendent for education for the district's schools.

Vol. 22, Issue 27, Page 6

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