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."

Illustration by Mark Poutenis
Surfside Mayor Paul Novack (top) and developer Ed Easton believe breaking up the school district might be the only way to save public education
Courtesy Wood + Zapata
Surfside Mayor Paul Novack (top) and developer Ed Easton believe breaking up the school district might be the only way to save public education
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
T. Willard Fair says public frustration with the state of local schools is high, but that doesn't mean the fix should be accomplished in haste
T. Willard Fair says public frustration with the state of local schools is high, but that doesn't mean the fix should be accomplished in haste

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."

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

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.

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."

For that reason, plus the pressure from local leaders genuinely frustrated with the pace of change, it seems apparent that Stierheim is not going to get the time he needs to really fix the system. In a perfect world the school board would unite behind a common vision for reform, and it would empower Stierheim to get the job done. The cowboys in Tallahassee would keep the pressure on but not try so hard to undermine legitimate efforts at reform. Clearly that's not going to happen. What will happen is that infighting, public frustration, and raw politics will slowly tear the district apart, in a literal sense.

Rather than allowing the education system to disintegrate by default, it makes a lot more sense to consider chopping it up in an intelligent manner that actually has a shot at ensuring high-quality education. Even if it doesn't turn out to be feasible, the mere threat of division could produce a communitywide effort to save the existing system, which would be worth it. One reason for the current mess is that too many people have impassively sat on the sidelines. "My preference would be to have one district that works well," says state House majority leader Marco Rubio. "But [breaking up the district] is a concept that merits discussion. I'm for anything that gives parents more options. The rich and the middle class can get out. The only people who don't have real school choice are the poor. They are stuck in schools that are failing and can't do anything about it."


The idea of breaking up the district isn't new. It was proposed in 1980, as the county was undergoing substantial growing pains and the inner cities were descending into a hell from which they have yet to escape. At the time, there were about 230,000 students attending the public schools. For the next four years, despite an enormous influx of Cuban and Haitian immigrants, enrollment actually decreased by a few thousand as Anglo parents pulled their kids out of public schools or fled across the county line.

Then in 1996 (about 100,000 students later) a group of frustrated local leaders, including former Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin, Surfside's Novack, and others, brought up the subject again (there was also legislation percolating in Tallahassee). The school district responded with a thick report claiming that division would do more harm than good. In 1998 legislators in Broward and Palm Beach proposed a constitutional amendment permitting Florida's school districts (whose boundaries by state law conform to county boundaries) to divide into smaller units of at least 15,000 students. Octavio Visiedo, superintendent of schools at the time of the 1996 study, remembers staff concluding that division would be difficult because of issues such as equitable distribution of resources, desegregation, and finances. "Operationally it was probably doable, but financially a real nightmare," he recalls. "When you start breaking up, that affects the debt you can carry. We thought we'd lose some of our punch."

That's a good point, one of many made by critics of dividing big school districts. The district has certain assets, like buildings and equipment, and carries certain debts, such as bonds issued for construction. So how do you divide that? How do you fairly parcel out the assets? Tricky, but not an insurmountable problem. Attorney Miguel De Grandy suggests, for instance, that one way to split assets and obligations would be to give the greater chunk of the debt to the districts with the newest schools. That way districts with older schools in need of repair or replacement could sell bonds for such projects.

But sociologist Alex Stepick, director of FIU's Immigration and Ethnicity Institute, points out that smaller districts would lose much of the current economies of scale presented by Miami's big system. That could negatively affect the prices schools pay for supplies and services like buses and special-education programs. "These are most visible in the magnet schools, such as MAST Academy, DASH, and New World School of the Arts," says Stepick. "These schools are nationally recognized and extraordinarily successful."

De Grandy counters: New World and other special schools that are countywide assets could remain so. "You could develop a separate administration of these flagship schools, where each district contributes equally to the enrollment," he proposes.

In fact a number of knowledgeable people believe advantageous economies of scale could be preserved by creating a superstructure that would handle common functions (transportation, construction, procurement) through interlocal agreements among districts. "Obviously there's a point of diminishing returns if you go too small," notes Jay Greene, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Education Research Office. "Nobody knows what the ideal [district] size is -- but it's still pretty clear that Miami is way too big." Greene adds that any division plan should allow students to move freely between districts, which would foster healthy competition and reduce the problem of segregated communities.

That's another compelling challenge. Breaking the district into smaller pieces could easily exacerbate the racial and economic divisions that already afflict this community. Do we really want to trap poor black and Hispanic kids in crumbling inner-city school systems so that affluent communities don't have to deal with them? Merri Mann, director of educational and professional issues for the United Teachers of Dade (UTD), admits the existing system hasn't been perfect but says it has tried to make up for social inequities. "I think oftentimes we look for easy answers," she says. "That's the answer New York City looked for over 30 years ago [by instituting local school councils]. They became fiefdoms -- incestuous and more corrupt. It was like, okay, you fixed the problem. But the fixing became worse than the problem. And now they're going back."

Miami-Dade could experience similar divisiveness, cautions the Chamber of Commerce's Bud Park: "To peel off a segment of that would be to say, 'I'd be happy to live in Coral Gables with my little district and not worry about the rest.' There's no sense of overall community benefit."

The only problem with the resegregation argument is that it's already happened. Thirty years of desegregation has essentially failed. All you have to do is look at the inner-city schools, where 80 and 90 percent of the students are of one race, say observers like Linda Eads, former principal of MAST Academy (Maritime and Science Technology) and now a Jeb Bush appointee to the state's Board of Education. "Look at Northwestern, Miami High, Central -- are those schools integrated?" she asks. "So what are we doing here?"

Victor Young, president of the Ohio-based Learning Communities Network, which concentrates on urban-education issues, agrees. "Since 1970 the country's schools haven't become less segregated, because desegregation is a function of housing and economics," he asserts. "Schools do nothing for it. If we care about that, we go after housing."

The trick in subdividing the district, according to Dario Moreno, is to prevent affluent places like Pinecrest, South Miami, and Coral Gables from clustering together, leaving other districts saddled with the poorest children and their special educational challenges. "To me you would break up the district almost the same way as redistricting is done," he muses. "In drawing boundaries, you want to create situations where you pair rich areas and poor areas, so as not to create inequalities. If it's done right, it could work." For instance, pairing Aventura and Liberty City might make sense, or Hialeah and Miami Lakes, Overtown and Miami Beach.

FIU history professor Brian Peterson has been writing about local education issues for years, distributing his views through an e-mail newsletter sent to hundreds of policymakers, journalists, and education wonks. He thinks breaking up the district would be problematic because of the natural tendency of people to draw lines and grab resources most beneficial to their own narrow interests. But he has a few theories about how to make it work. One idea would be to make each neighborhood high school feeder pattern its own district. (A feeder pattern is all the elementary and middle schools whose students "feed" into one high school.) That would be the ultimate version of community schooling, but it has an inherent disadvantage: It would create less diverse districts with great economic and social disparities. The low-income districts would have the most challenges, the least tax base, and the hardest time attracting quality teachers and administrators.

Like Moreno, Peterson prefers the idea of pairing low- and middle-income areas. In his version, the poorest feeder patterns would be matched up with one or two middle-class ones -- for instance, Booker T. Washington High with Palmetto High; Miami High with South Miami High; Jackson High with Coral Gables High; Edison High with Miami Beach High; Central High with American High; Northwestern High with Miami Springs High; Homestead High with South Dade High. "I consider this to be the optimal districting plan for our county," he says. "It will give the best overall results while also doing the most for the low-income students. The new districts would be small, flexible, and highly competitive with each other."


T. Willard Fair, who heads the Urban League of Greater Miami and sits on both the state Board of Education and the state-imposed district advisory board, acknowledges that certain elements in Tallahassee are convinced smaller districts are better, but he warns that this issue requires serious, detailed discussion: "We need a diagnosis of what things are wrong with the system. How we select leaders, how we select curriculum, a comparative analysis with systems that are smaller. The bottom line is whether reorganization improves our ability to deliver quality education to children."

One of the key players in this discussion will be the teachers union, although that role undoubtedly will be clouded by the ongoing federal investigation into allegations that president Pat Tornillo (who announced last week he was going on indefinite leave) may have embezzled money from the organization. Union leaders oppose breaking up the district because they fear it would only reinforce the divisions introduced in 1996, when school board members began to be elected from single-member districts. Yet the ever-practical UTD is talking to the City of Miami about helping to run its charter schools, some of which could be "converted" public schools. Union executives Merri Mann and Tom Gammon are realistic about their reasons for getting involved. Beyond a desire to remain the bargaining agent for teachers in city schools, they maintain that the union wants to help run schools that are more flexible and accountable than most district schools -- which sounds a lot like the stated goals of the people who want to break up the district.

Gammon: "If you're going to change education, you have to do it school by school. The schools should own the problem. Right now it's kind of top down. Charter schools work because the community owns them. We think we can be innovative and sell new educational models back to the district."

Mann: "One of our problems is we come up with ideas we want to try and the district is reluctant. It's unwieldy and hard to move. We can have the best of all possible worlds. I think we can make it work. Or we can sit back and watch other people do it wrong -- some for the right reasons and others not."

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