Smaller Is Better

The case for breaking up the grossly dysfunctional Miami-Dade County school district

Paul Novack finds himself in an odd position these days. As the veteran mayor of pint-size Surfside he's built a reputation for being a feisty champion of the little guy, fearlessly taking on bigger, richer opponents, from Bal Harbour's Stanley Whitman to other developers who threatened the low-rise integrity of his small town. But easily his most quixotic mission has been the last ten years or so of fighting to make the megalithic Miami-Dade school district accountable to the children it purports to serve.

It started simply enough, with Novack requesting that the district upgrade the dilapidated facilities at nearby Miami Beach High School, which was plagued with numerous safety hazards. He got nowhere. But he didn't just go away in frustration as most people do. Instead he began trying to track down what had happened to all the bond money voters approved for school construction and renovation in 1988. After years of digging, he came to the conclusion that the school district had created an elaborate shell game for constructing, renovating, and expanding schools -- a game designed to generate as much work for consultants as possible. "That $980 million didn't produce even $500 million of buildings," the short, bespectacled lawyer complains. "I call it the 'Architect and Engineers Relief Act of 1988.'"

Novack and other parents also filed a lawsuit in 2000 that aimed to force the district to fix severe fire and safety hazards found in many schools. Publicity surrounding the lawsuit eventually galvanized the legislature to grant local fire marshals the authority to enforce violations they'd been complaining about for years. The system has improved since former county Manager Merrett Stierheim was brought in to clean the place up in 2001, but in Novack's estimation the fundamental bureaucratic mentality he's been battling remains the same. "I know there are some people who are trying," he says, "but the majority of the school board and the old guard are resisting reform and preventing accountability."

In Novack's mind, this is a compelling argument for breaking up the Miami-Dade County Public Schools colossus -- an educational empire of about 370,000 students, 48,000 full- and part-time employees (roughly 19,600 teachers), and with an annual budget of more than four billion dollars. Break it up into several regional districts and return it to the parents and neighborhoods, he argues. "It's become so big, so unwieldy, and so detached that it perpetuates itself in any way it wishes," he adds. "It's lost all contact with what's happening in the schools."

Now Novack is in a position to do something about it. Last year he joined an advisory board of seven men appointed by the governor and the leaders of the state Senate and House to recommend improvements to some of the school district's more scandal-plagued operations. Their power rests in their ability to withhold millions in state dollars until the district complies with their requests, which have mostly followed a traditional Republican line of advocating privatization of services. So far it's been a contentious relationship marked by distrust and posturing on both sides. The district is convinced that the board, stacked mostly with developers and attorneys who have close ties to Gov. Jeb Bush, is really only interested in dismantling the system and selling off its parts to the highest bidder. The board, for its part, is skeptical that the district has the ability or willingness to radically reform its entrenched culture. The two views are fast becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

At an April advisory board meeting chairman Ed Easton proposed studying the issue of breaking up the school district. "What my friends in Tallahassee tell me is that smaller districts have unbelievably better numbers than bigger districts," Easton remarked. "We should take a look at it and analyze that." Novack and the rest of the board supported the idea, although cautiously. Hastily breaking up the district before first dealing with its fundamental flaws "will only magnify the problems," warned colleague Ed London. School board member Michael Krop, who attended the meeting, was incredulous. "Explain to me how the land-acquisition and facilities advisory board is discussing breaking up the school district," he groused. At the end of the meeting, Merrett Stierheim walked out muttering under his breath: "I think I'm going to throw up."

Easton's most significant friend in Tallahassee is his old golfing buddy Jeb Bush. He discloses that Bush personally shared with him the numbers of which he spoke, showing that school districts with fewer than 50,000 students produce results that are "really stellar." The Manhattan Institute's Education Research Office, a conservative think tank with an office in Broward, has predicted that if Florida were to break up its large districts, statewide graduation rates would begin to increase because big, inefficient bureaucracies would be replaced with more flexible and accountable smaller systems.

Harvard economist Carolyn Hoxby has done studies suggesting that large metropolitan areas with just a few big school districts spend more and produce fewer positive results than those with smaller districts, partly because competition encourages excellence. According to the federal government's National Center for Education Statistics, the largest school districts in the nation (we're number four) have much larger individual schools and higher student-to-teacher ratios than average-size districts. Most experts agree big classes and big schools have negative impacts on learning. Easton says he doesn't yet know if breaking up the Miami-Dade district would be the fix everyone is looking for, but "my stomach tells me it's probably a good idea."

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