Smaller Is Better

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

Gelber's home base of Miami Beach, for instance, has looked at operating its own system of charter schools. Miami Shores residents approved a five-million-dollar bond issue this past month to build their own charter high school. Aventura is also building its own charter school. And just a few weeks ago Miami Mayor Manny Diaz publicly announced his support for having the city run its own schools, likely by converting existing public schools to city-run charter schools. State Rep. Ralph Arza sponsored a bill this session that would permit cities to take over public schools within their boundaries, and also to grab some of the district's property-tax revenue. At press time the bill had passed the House, but the Senate version died before making it to the floor.

Arza is unequivocal about his intentions. "I think [my bill] will actually provide a vehicle or a process for municipalities to secede from the district," he offers. "At the end of the day, municipalities need to have a greater influence over what is happening in their schools." In the City of Miami, where some of the county's worst schools are located, Mayor Diaz considers quality education the missing piece of his antipoverty campaign. "Every time I meet with businesses to convince them to locate to Miami, the supreme issue is education," he recounts. "People say, 'I'd love to move to your city, but where would my kids go to school?'" Diaz's city manager, Joe Arriola, told a homeowners group in Model City on April 29 that the city has every intention of taking over its schools. "We have to get the fat cats out because they're taking your money and not educating your kids!" he ranted, chomping down on a wad of gum.

Easton, Bush's point man on the advisory board, says the trend of legislators encouraging city-run charter schools is in part motivated by pure economics. Consider that more than a billion dollars yearly pour into the Miami-Dade school district from the state. That's a lot of money, especially if you believe too much of it ends up being wasted. "The simple reason the state is pushing this off on charters is it costs $6000 versus $12,000 to educate them," he says. "And 80 percent have higher test scores."

That's sort of true. Charter schools in general tend to be smaller and to attract middle-class students with more active parents -- all ingredients for a successful school. But several investigations conducted for this paper have shown that some charter schools are absolutely horrendous, miniature versions of the district's worst schools but with even less oversight. Success for any school depends on the commitment and abilities of the people who are in it, and a high degree of accountability. That's also a formula for a successful school district, small or large.

There's no question that the Miami-Dade school district is beset by crippling problems. The Miami Herald has done an excellent job of late exposing the many scandalous deficiencies in the construction and maintenance of schools. New Times and Channel 10 (WPLG-TV) have hammered away at the district for years on subjects ranging from gross mismanagement of various departments (food service, school police, adult education) to sex scandals, top administrators with few or no qualifications, and lots of other ugly situations that, when viewed collectively, reveal the overarching source: a very sick institutional culture. Despite the uproar, though, no one at a high level has gone to jail in many years, or even been arrested. The State Attorney's Office, in more than a dozen investigations, has been unable to distinguish between sheer bureaucratic ineptness and outright criminal behavior. That ought to tell us something.

Many very bad personnel decisions, made over the years by top bureaucrats and school board members, spawned a highly political culture fueled by fear and intimidation and perpetuated by patronage and nepotism. The unqualified and incompetent thrived, the guilty were protected. Rules were ignored, accountability disappeared. It became apparent to employees at every level that political connections trumped ability every time. The schools became farm teams for the political games played at headquarters downtown. If favored administrators made too big a mess in one place, they'd likely be promoted to management in departments like construction, transportation, and maintenance.

When the school board brought in Merrett Stierheim as superintendent about a year and a half ago, neither he nor board members knew what they were in for. The general idea was that public furor over one scandal too many could be quieted by hiring a man some consider the last honest public administrator in town. The white knight of troubled local bureaucracies would ride in, slay a couple of monsters, then ride off into the sunset. The board members didn't really want a strong and competent superintendent to disrupt their comfortable little fiefdoms. They were buying the brand name, not the product. "When it comes to trying to fix something big, you need to put somebody strong in charge and give him the resources and a little time to do the job," says Dabney "Bud" Park, chairman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's education group. "That's not what we've done. We're sort of self-destructing by baiting our leader and getting him to run around in circles."

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