Smaller Is Better

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

Easton's intuition, it turns out, is right in line with many other Miami-Dade County residents. In early April, Florida International University professor and political analyst Dario Moreno conducted a poll of 407 likely voters in Miami-Dade on behalf of school board member Marta Perez, who wanted to assess her chances in a run for county mayor. (Moreno is a consultant to Campaign Data, Inc.) Among the questions voters were asked was this one: "Would you like to see the school district broken up?" About 43 percent said yes, 29.5 percent said no, and the rest (27 percent) had no opinion on the matter. Those are fairly remarkable numbers considering the vague and open-ended nature of the question. People want to see the district broken up into what, for instance? An ethnic breakdown of the responses is even more interesting:

Yes No No opinion

Blacks 43.4 0.2 26.4

Schools Superintendent Merrett Stierheim is fighting against outside forces who want to dismantle his bureaucracy, and inside forces who'd like to preserve it in stone
Steve Satterwhite
Schools Superintendent Merrett Stierheim is fighting against outside forces who want to dismantle his bureaucracy, and inside forces who'd like to preserve it in stone
United Teachers of Dade executive Merri Mann thinks more union-run charter schools could be the answer
Bill Cooke
United Teachers of Dade executive Merri Mann thinks more union-run charter schools could be the answer

Anglos 48.6 26.4 25

Cubans 39 33.6 27.4

Non-Cuban Hispanics 39.6 26.4 34

The most telling figures may be the significant percentage of blacks who thought breaking up the district would be a good idea. These are numbers the school board should be most concerned about because, historically, blacks have been among the staunchest defenders of the district. "These results reflect what I think is a desperation," Moreno says. "They don't see it as serving their interest and they are willing to accept any change. The sense we got is that people feel the system is not delivering on the goods. It's too unwieldy and the problems under [former superintendent Roger] Cuevas haven't really been fundamentally addressed."

The fact that the percentages are so similar across ethnic lines reflects a widespread dissatisfaction with the current school system, but doesn't necessarily indicate that the public is ready to toss the whole mess and go fishing. It does suggest, however, that a cleverly managed PR campaign with specific, carefully considered alternatives could easily tap into a groundswell of discontent. Perhaps something like a cross between the emotionally appealing campaign for a class-size amendment and the more detailed, street-by-street pitch offered by the local transit-tax initiative -- both quite successful.

As it happens, a campaign of some kind is beginning to take shape. Next week (at Easton's behest) the advisory board is receiving a proposal from attorney and lobbyist Miguel De Grandy that lays out a possible approach to breaking up Miami's school district. De Grandy estimates a proper study of the subject could be expensive, since he believes the right way to do the job is to hire a team of specialists (educators, attorneys, financial experts) to tackle the many thorny issues raised by such an idea. For instance, if you divide one big, diverse district into smaller ones, how do you avoid ending up with a hodgepodge of racially segregated, rich and poor fiefdoms that would be even harder to hold accountable than what we now have?

De Grandy isn't yet sure. "A well-commissioned and open-minded study can come back saying it's just not feasible," he concedes. But his experience in redrawing and defending voting districts for the state House last year gave him insight into the legal and constitutional issues involved in mapping out constituencies. While acknowledging the difficulties, De Grandy believes that if the political will exists to break up the district, the practical means will follow.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that some grand political conspiracy is being promoted by Jeb Bush's office, given the obvious loyalties of the advisory board and the fact that De Grandy was general counsel for the governor's transition team after he won re-election. Bush also appointed him to the Board of Governors for the state university system. Add to that Frank Bolaños, the school board member Bush appointed in 2001 to finish the felonious Demetrio Perez's term. In March, Bolaños conveniently laid the groundwork for the advisory board's proposed study by polling his school board colleagues on their feelings about breaking up the district. Not surprisingly the rest of the board wasn't thrilled with the idea.

But it's not just ideologues and political hacks in the Republican camp who think the school district is simply too big for its own good. Attorney Gene Stearns, a self-described liberal who kick-started the local incorporation movement in Key Biscayne, believes breaking up the district is an excellent idea. "The rule of thumb is there's a point at which your government works for you -- at about 15,000 or 20,000 people," he maintains. "Any bigger than that, you tend to be working for the government." Besides a basic small-government perspective, Stearns has developed a certain disdain for this particular big bureaucracy. "I have litigated with the school system and have deposed top administrators and was surprised at the [low] level of education and ability there," he says. "It's a relatively weak group. The mission of the system, as far as I can tell, is to employ people -- not to educate people. It's a mess."

State Rep. Dan Gelber, a moderate Democrat, supports a comprehensive look at whether the district's current size and structure are best for local education. "We should be unrestrained by any current structures," he reasons. "Look at the idea holistically and see if it makes sense. I believe the system benefits from that kind of discussion." Gelber sees a broader trend: various parts of the community already disengaging from the school district in a kind of de facto dismantling of the system, which could end up being most damaging to the communities with the least political pull.

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