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In preparation for that project, a new firm, Eastern Engineering Group, turned up even deeper problems. The firm prepared a lengthy study of the four buildings that had been cited four years ago. About a week after that study was submitted, on February 22, architect Antonio Rosabal (who didn't return three calls seeking comment) emailed the county about the chance of imminent collapse. "Mobilize as soon as possible," he wrote. "This situation is serious and deserves an immediate response."
That's when the county decided to move the nearly 700 kids from North Dade Middle to the old North Miami Senior High, about 20 minutes away. That school had been abandoned because it had become decrepit. The 400 CML students would remain in newer, safer buildings on the NW 157th Street campus.
"If they knew the school had all this damage, why didn't they move the kids a long time ago?" says Gabriela Vitali, whose two children studied at the campus before the buildings were fenced off. "Something is not right."
Vitali's older child, a sixth-grader, now must ride two buses to attend classes at the old North Miami Senior High. A day-care worker of modest means, she continues sending her daughter there. She wants her to learn French.
Wilbert Holloway, the school board member who represents the area, is rather, well, contradictory in his response to the situation: "This really opened our eyes," he says. "Of course we are upset about it. In hindsight, if we would have known about his thing being unsafe, we would have moved earlier... but I don't think anyone was ever unsafe."
Holloway went on to say the board has done a survey of other schools, some of which date to the 1920s. He doesn't think there are more problems like North Dade's ahead. "We have subsequently investigated all of our aging buildings," he explains. "We do not have those types of situations elsewhere."
But another county document might belie that statement. A 2008 review of county schools' condition shows that back then, county buildings were in need of $1.9 billion in plumbing, structural, and safety work. Almost 10 percent of that was considered critical: "related to building safety... failing building components and other corrections." The largest chunk of the $167 million, $100 million, was related to "fire safety systems that need immediate attention."
While the county shores up these problems as well as it can with inspections and site work, the figure is growing by 5 percent per year, says the county's chief facility officer, Jaime Torrens, the bright but beleaguered man in charge of dealing with mammoth construction/maintenance problems.
Because of falling tax revenues, the county has had to cut $350 million from its budget over the past 18 months. And the district is projecting a 14.5 percent drop in money from property taxes. Just a few years ago, Torrens explains, millions of dollars were diverted from construction to pay teachers and other operational expenses.
Moreover, because of arcane funding formulas, Miami-Dade County — the nation's fourth largest school district and the most urban in Florida, receives far less per student than other districts in the state.
"Even when times were good, we used the money to address increasing enrollment, not fix existing facilities," Torrens says. "Now we have less money coming in."
All of this should alarm every taxpayer and any parent who has a child in a Miami-Dade public school. North Dade Middle might well be just the beginning of far deeper problems across the area. In the end, construction concerns are perhaps the most insidious effect of the real estate bust that has paralyzed South Florida's formerly dynamic economy.
This will require the Carvalho administration — which took office after the 2006 report on North Dade Middle and pushed through the new building — to be increasingly vigilant.
During the research for this column, Carvalho spokesman John Schuster mentioned that perhaps I was the wrong person to write about the North Dade situation. "Maybe you're too close to it," he said. "You have a child there."
But Mr. Schuster has it precisely wrong. Parents should and must investigate the immense problems with our schools. That's the only way things will improve.