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A grassy yard where rowdy 6-year-olds squealed at play three weeks ago is a ghost town. A gray chainlink fence and blood-red "Restricted Access" signs block entry to dingy, half-century-old concrete buildings that nearly collapsed like spring icicles on tiny heads.
Two schools that share a North Miami-Dade campus were abruptly shuttered this month after an architect warned that behemoth cement walkways "could fall without warning." More than 1,000 kids were removed from their classrooms at North Dade Middle School and the Center for Modern Languages and forced to study elsewhere. It happened fast. Many children had no time to retrieve books.
Miami-Dade schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho's decision to close most of a campus that includes one of the county's top elementary schools just days before state testing didn't draw much notice. It should have. Carvalho's choice threw scores of lives into chaos. It's a sign not only of school administrators' incompetence, but also of lethal disasters ahead.
Through public documents and interviews, I've learned two things: (1) Leaders knew of severe problems at the two schools more than three years ago and did almost nothing. (2) "Critical" construction deficiencies are ballooning throughout county schools and now total more than $167 million.
"They put the kids in danger and the faculty too," Helen Ampie, mother of a second-grader, said recently as she walked through the weirdly deserted campus on NW 157th Street. "It's just not fair."
Carvalho — who was appointed in September 2008 — declined to speak with me for this column but issued the following statement through a spokesman: "Decidedly, the previous administration should have taken more action, [but when] we received word that there were imminent safety concerns related to the schools, we took immediate action in the name of student safety and relocated students at once."
Until their closure, the two schools were located just across a murky canal from one of America's poorest and most troubled cities, Opa-locka. It was a largely African-American campus of hard-working students and parents.
I've sent two of my kids to the Center for Modern Languages, an elementary school called CML for short, for the past four years. I love the place. Teachers are smart and engaged. Students adore the flamboyant polyglot principal. Last year, I helped them publish a Spanish-language newspaper. I annually dress like Superman and talk to the children about writing and journalism. (Clark Kent was a reporter, remember?)
Of course, because of its location, the place can be risky. Several years ago, both schools had to be shut down after a carjacker fled cops and hid on school grounds. Some kids spent the day at another school's cafeteria. Others, like mine, stayed home.
Despite the nearby mayhem and modest means of its parents, CML for years has been an A school. Its students have won the county spelling bee and finished first in national French exams. Bi- and trilingual 11-year-olds walk the grounds chatting like the Nabokovs in Paris.
The place doesn't look like the Tuileries Palace, though. Many of the two-story buildings date to 1957. Before I decided to send my children there, I asked friends about CML. Despite the school's stellar performance on standardized tests, few had sent theirs.
"The place is beat-up," responded one.
"The county doesn't keep it like they keep other schools," commented another.
"Maybe it's because it's a black school and parents don't complain," said a third.
A school employee who asked not to be named told me the same thing when I visited recently. "Since I started working here 12 years ago, it's like the county doesn't care," he said. "Windows are falling out; birds are flying around classrooms."
The employee, and the dozens of angry parents who attended a meeting about the closure early this month, should check out a 120-page report from July 31, 2006, that school officials gave me in response to a public records request. It's stuffed with pictures of cracking concrete, rusty metal, and complex construction algorithms that show the kind of danger kids faced.
A.D. Engineering Inc. cited four of the buildings that were recently closed as particularly problematic. They included "structural deficiencies requiring immediate attention due to potential safety concerns." The firm recommended that the school "avoid the congregation of students and staff in the second-floor hallway."
In an elementary school? Really!
At least part of the reason, wrote an engineer named Alfredo Quintero, was that the slab underneath was in "critical condition" and included "large cracks." It was "UNDERDESIGNED to bearing the soliciting loads," he wrote. And, yes, the underlining and bold type are his.
The engineering firm then laid out solutions to the many problems in a two-page spreadsheet. Windows should be replaced, concrete patched, and stairways fixed up. The overall cost: $7.5 million.
So how did the school board react? In the three and a half years since the report came out, the board spent $160,000 — in large part to replace hand railings. That is about 2 percent of what the architects recommended. This past October, when it appeared that a fixup just wouldn't work very well, the school board approved a new building. It's planned for completion in 2011.
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.