Roll out the Red Tape

How many bureaucrats does it take to fill a pothole at a Dade County school? The author would like to tell you, but he's still counting.

Earlier this year Octavio Visiedo and I exchanged thank-you notes. Mine was more than a little disingenuous. I suspect his was, too.

Visiedo, of course, is superintendent of the Dade County Public Schools. I'm a parent of a child at Springview Elementary, about a mile north of Miami International Airport in Miami Springs.

I wrote him first: "As a parent who made a few phone calls to help clear up a problem at Springview, I just wanted to let you know about the rapid and effective responses I received from Dade County Public Schools officials."

I described the problem and explained what each of three Dade school officials had done about it.

Visiedo thanked me "for taking the time to express your gratitude for the work of Dade County Public Schools staff. It's not often that parents report back on problems having been solved, although we pride ourselves in just such responsiveness. Your letter was a refreshing and most welcome reminder of our customary efficiency."

The problem had not, in fact, been solved. It wasn't even close to being solved. But this isn't a story about the solution of a problem. This is a story about an education bureaucracy. A bureaucracy all but incapable of finding an obvious solution to a simple problem. A huge and expensive bureaucracy in which any claims of "responsiveness" or "customary efficiency" would prove to be ridiculously false.

The problem was potholes. The potholes in front of Springview's main entrance were a problem because kids emerging from their parents' cars on rainy mornings would step or fall into them, sometimes just for the fun of it, and then track mud into the cafeteria, the hallways, and the classrooms.

As a parent trying to find a solution to that little problem, I had advantages over many parents for whom the Dade school system is an impenetrable maze. I'm my own boss in a business that specializes in public affairs. I know my way around, and quite a few school officials know me and know I know my way around. None of the school officials I approached attempted to brush me off. Most were more than willing to help.

It's not as if they screwed up because they didn't care. They screwed up even though they did care, even when they seemed to be doing their damnedest to try to impress me. And they screwed up repeatedly in ways that completely undermined their sincere efforts to help.

I myself never found the potholes all that objectionable. I wanted to be an activist parent, but I wanted to tackle weightier problems, such as overcrowded classes, inadequate curriculum, and incompetent teachers.

But last year, when Springview was assigned a new principal, and when he, like his predecessor, complained about the potholes, it began to dawn on me that paving over potholes might pave my way to the influence I'd need to advance the cause of reform at my neighborhood school.

The new principal, a short, balding, amiable fellow named Henry Ferrer, had impressed me as a well-meaning man who'd do almost anything to help kids -- as long as it didn't require any confrontation or conflict with his school-system superiors. I figured that if he would let me run bureaucratic interference for him, we might make an effective team.

On rainy mornings, I'd find Ferrer standing with an umbrella outside Springview's front entrance, assisting and sometimes lifting his pupils across the muddy obstacles to their educational progress. Yet he maintained that the school system was powerless to address the problem because the potholes were located not on school property but on the swale -- a narrow strip of bare ground between the sidewalk and the street. The swale belonged to the City of Miami Springs.

Ferrer gave me my opening one day last February when he told me he'd decided to go before the Miami Springs City Council to ask the city to pay for a paving job. And if that didn't work, he'd go hat in hand to the Springview PTA. "Let me check it out first," I offered. Ferrer agreed. And I began making phone calls, starting with Miami Springs City Manager Dodd Southern.

"It's hard to believe the school system doesn't have any money for this sort of thing," drawled Southern in an accent befitting his name.

Southern, who had worked for various municipal governments for more than three decades, patiently explained that Springview was in the same position as any other property owner seeking a paving job on an adjacent slice of city-owned swale. Unless the paving would be of material benefit to the city, the city would expect the property owner to foot the bill. But if the school system could be persuaded to pay, he said, the city public works department might be able do the job at cost.

Southern promised to get me an estimate. A week later he left a long message on my answering machine: "The cost of paving 198 feet of swale in front of Springview will be $3165. One hundred thirty-two tons of crushed lime rock for $375. Thirty-three tons of asphalt paving, installed by a contractor, at $30 a ton, for $990. Outside rental of street roller, for working the lime rock, for $350. And two days of labor by a city crew, for $1450."

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