Earlier this year Octavio Visiedo and I exchanged thank-you notes. Mine was more than a little disingenuous. I suspect his was, too.
Visiedo, of course, is superintendent of the Dade County Public Schools. I'm a parent of a child at Springview Elementary, about a mile north of Miami International Airport in Miami Springs.
I wrote him first: "As a parent who made a few phone calls to help clear up a problem at Springview, I just wanted to let you know about the rapid and effective responses I received from Dade County Public Schools officials."
I described the problem and explained what each of three Dade school officials had done about it.
Visiedo thanked me "for taking the time to express your gratitude for the work of Dade County Public Schools staff. It's not often that parents report back on problems having been solved, although we pride ourselves in just such responsiveness. Your letter was a refreshing and most welcome reminder of our customary efficiency."
The problem had not, in fact, been solved. It wasn't even close to being solved. But this isn't a story about the solution of a problem. This is a story about an education bureaucracy. A bureaucracy all but incapable of finding an obvious solution to a simple problem. A huge and expensive bureaucracy in which any claims of "responsiveness" or "customary efficiency" would prove to be ridiculously false.
The problem was potholes. The potholes in front of Springview's main entrance were a problem because kids emerging from their parents' cars on rainy mornings would step or fall into them, sometimes just for the fun of it, and then track mud into the cafeteria, the hallways, and the classrooms.
As a parent trying to find a solution to that little problem, I had advantages over many parents for whom the Dade school system is an impenetrable maze. I'm my own boss in a business that specializes in public affairs. I know my way around, and quite a few school officials know me and know I know my way around. None of the school officials I approached attempted to brush me off. Most were more than willing to help.
It's not as if they screwed up because they didn't care. They screwed up even though they did care, even when they seemed to be doing their damnedest to try to impress me. And they screwed up repeatedly in ways that completely undermined their sincere efforts to help.
I myself never found the potholes all that objectionable. I wanted to be an activist parent, but I wanted to tackle weightier problems, such as overcrowded classes, inadequate curriculum, and incompetent teachers.
But last year, when Springview was assigned a new principal, and when he, like his predecessor, complained about the potholes, it began to dawn on me that paving over potholes might pave my way to the influence I'd need to advance the cause of reform at my neighborhood school.
The new principal, a short, balding, amiable fellow named Henry Ferrer, had impressed me as a well-meaning man who'd do almost anything to help kids -- as long as it didn't require any confrontation or conflict with his school-system superiors. I figured that if he would let me run bureaucratic interference for him, we might make an effective team.
On rainy mornings, I'd find Ferrer standing with an umbrella outside Springview's front entrance, assisting and sometimes lifting his pupils across the muddy obstacles to their educational progress. Yet he maintained that the school system was powerless to address the problem because the potholes were located not on school property but on the swale -- a narrow strip of bare ground between the sidewalk and the street. The swale belonged to the City of Miami Springs.
Ferrer gave me my opening one day last February when he told me he'd decided to go before the Miami Springs City Council to ask the city to pay for a paving job. And if that didn't work, he'd go hat in hand to the Springview PTA. "Let me check it out first," I offered. Ferrer agreed. And I began making phone calls, starting with Miami Springs City Manager Dodd Southern.
"It's hard to believe the school system doesn't have any money for this sort of thing," drawled Southern in an accent befitting his name.
Southern, who had worked for various municipal governments for more than three decades, patiently explained that Springview was in the same position as any other property owner seeking a paving job on an adjacent slice of city-owned swale. Unless the paving would be of material benefit to the city, the city would expect the property owner to foot the bill. But if the school system could be persuaded to pay, he said, the city public works department might be able do the job at cost.
Southern promised to get me an estimate. A week later he left a long message on my answering machine: "The cost of paving 198 feet of swale in front of Springview will be $3165. One hundred thirty-two tons of crushed lime rock for $375. Thirty-three tons of asphalt paving, installed by a contractor, at $30 a ton, for $990. Outside rental of street roller, for working the lime rock, for $350. And two days of labor by a city crew, for $1450."
When I called to thank him, the city manager confirmed that the city would do the job for $3165. But time was running short, he said. The city public works department soon would be switching to a new contract year and a new contractor, and all work of this sort would be put on hold for several months. If we wanted public works to do the paving job before summertime, Southern would need the school system's written commitment to pay for the work, and he'd need to have it in hand in time for the city council meeting at 7:30 p.m. on March 8 A his last opportunity to advise the council of plans under the current public works contract.
On February 24, armed with that estimate and mindful of the March 8 deadline, I began phoning the school system's downtown headquarters in search of $3165. In less than an hour, I learned that the Capital Improvements Committee included a woman who knew me -- Virginia Rosen, the assistant superintendent for planning and management systems. Rosen seemed delighted to hear from me, and she appeared to know exactly what to do.
She said she'd ask the district legal office for an opinion about the legality of using school-system money to pave property owned by the city. If there wasn't any legal problem, she said, we'd probably be able to use money from a capital outlay fund assigned to the regional school-system office serving Springview Elementary. But first, she said, we ought to check to see if safety funds might be available for the job. She said she'd have the safety department dispatch someone to the school.
After being told of the March 8 deadline, Rosen also promised to do whatever she could to underscore the urgency of the situation. She'd attend to it that very moment, she said, even though it was already past five o'clock -- time to rush to the gym for her daily workout.
To be doubly certain that Rosen had all the information she needed, I faxed her a letter recapping everything. I also wrote, "I don't know what we'd do without you."
At 11:00 a.m. the next morning, February 25, Calvin Slawson, a school-system safety official, met me at Springview. Together we eyeballed the potholes. He said they were indeed a safety hazard, the type of hazard that his department routinely corrected, even on property owned by other government agencies.
Slawson observed that the $3165 estimate from city Public Works was "a lot less" than the school system normally pays for such a job. Why? "Bidders know we have real deep pockets," he said.
On February 26, I received a call from Slawson's boss, Sam Ingram, director of the school system's department of safety, environment, and hazards management. Good news, he said. The school would immediately send City Manager Southern a $3165 purchase order authorizing the city to pave over the potholes.
Southern called an hour later. "Congratulations," he said.
I dashed off my note to Superintendent of Schools Octavio Visiedo. Gratitude had little to do with it. This note was a stratagem. By singling out Rosen, Slawson, and Ingram, it guaranteed that the superintendent would give each of them a pat on the back -- and that he'd lose face if anything happened to prevent an expeditious solution to the pothole problem.
On March 4, our boy Steven came home from school with a three-by-five-inch slip of paper from his principal. It bore the printed heading, "MEMO from Henry A. Ferrer." The rest was hand-written:
To: Mr. Joffee
Good news! (Thanks to you) I received a call from the CIF [Capital Improvement Force] office & was told that DCPS [Dade County Public Schools] will pay the city for the pavement in front of the school. Hope the wait is not long. Thanks again!
Bingo! 'd shown Ferrer that, in less than 48 hours, I could persuade his own organization to fork over money he had insisted would have to come from the Miami Springs city treasury, or worse, from our own school's financially strapped PTA. And I had him exactly where I wanted him -- not humbled, but grateful, and willing to address me as an equal.
Onward and upward to serious reform! Or so I thought.
On March 8, the city manager's move-it-or-lose-it deadline, I phoned Southern just to make sure he had the paperwork he needed to inform the city council and to proceed with the paving.
He faxed me what he had: not a purchase order, but a school-system "emergency purchase request (Form B)" filled in by Ingram.
I couldn't help noticing the spelling errors ("the rainey season") and malapropisms ("building [bidding] for a new contractor"). And I was particularly intrigued by a statement Ingram made in the box asking for justification of the "emergency" request: "Completion of this project by the City of Miami Springs will result in a cost saving of approximately $50,000."
Fifty grand? I deserved a medal -- or even better, a tax rebate.
Southern was concerned about the words that didn't appear on the form. Ingram had signed under "Requested by" and his boss had signed under "Recommended by," but the final signature box -- labeled "Reviewed and Approved by" -- remained blank. In other words, the city manager still needed the school system's written commitment to pay for the paving job -- and he needed it by 7:30 p.m. that very night.
I faxed Ingram a memo telling him the city manager would need one small item immediately in order to proceed. Later in the day, in response to my request, Ingram faxed a memo to Southern "...to confirm the fact that Dade County Public School [sic] is obligated to pay the City of Miami Springs for the paving work describe [sic] on requisition #01184039. No other signatures are require [sic].... "
Southern said that memo, despite its faults, would do the trick.
I called Ingram to thank him, and to ask if maybe he'd overstated the amount of money I'd saved the taxpayers. Would the same work really cost the school system as much as $53,165? "It probably would," Ingram replied. "Maybe not quite that much, but it would definitely cost us at least $20,000. We pay premium dollars."
On March 9, relieved but still curious about how much money I'd actually saved taxpayers, I called Ingram's boss, Bhagwan ("Buck") Gupta, associate superintendent for the school system's Bureau of Facilities Management.
Gupta's own guess was that the $3165 paving job "would cost $9500 if the school system did it." He was almost eager to admit that the system pays far more than it ought to pay for any kind of construction. Whenever possible, he said, he tries to get outside agencies to perform construction work such as the Springview paving job. "It always saves money," he added.
Gupta maintained that much of the blame for the school system's inflated construction costs can be assigned to needless laws and regulations. If the system itself were to pave 198 feet of swale in front of Springview, he said, state regulations probably would require him to hire "an architect or an engineer to draw a plan -- at least $2500 for a job that size."
If needless laws and regulations were eliminated, I asked, could the system buy 30 percent, 40 percent, or 50 percent more for the same money? He answered without hesitation: "No doubt about it."
On March 11, there were two items in my mailbox. The first was the note from Superintendent Visiedo telling me that our school system -- our "responsive" and "efficient" school system -- was entirely worthy of my gratitude.
The note was dated March 8, the same day I'd learned that the system had almost completely botched the job by sending the city manager an unsigned Emergency Purchase Request instead of a signed purchase order. The second piece of mail was the signed purchase order -- not a copy, the original. It had been sent to the wrong address because someone in the school system erroneously believed the Miami Springs public works department was located in my home.
I phoned the official to whom the purchase order said one should "direct all inquires [sic]," and I told him about the mistake. Then, just in case anything went wrong, I faxed the purchase order to Southern and followed up with a phone call. After a good laugh, Southern told me not to worry; the paving would be started and completed, under the current contract, during spring break, when the kids wouldn't be around to get in the way.
But on March 22, two weeks before the start of spring break, the school system sent Southern a five-page fax indicating that the system wasn't really quite ready to pay for the paving job.
The cover sheet featured a scrawled memo to Southern from Mike Levine, a supervisor in the system's site planning and government liaison department: "Please be advised that this document is still being reviewed by our Legal Department and Risk Management Department. I would appreciate receiving your comments as soon as possible."
The document, stamped prominently with the word "DRAFT," was a proposed agreement between the school system and the city. It featured two "whereas" sections; a lengthy "now therefore" section that, among other things, would require the city to "indemnify and save harmless" the School Board of Dade County "to the extent of the limitations included within Florida Statutes, Section 768.28, subject to the provisions in this Act whereby...." et cetera; and an Exhibit "A" map, "attached hereto and made part hereof," that purported to show the location of "a parent drop-off area."
If the school system insisted on this agreement, our little paving job would have to wait -- heaven knows how long -- for an affirmative vote by the school board, for an affirmative vote by the city council, and for the signatures of the mayor of Miami Springs, the chairperson of the school board, the Miami Springs city manager, the superintendent of schools, a lawyer for the City of Miami Springs, and a lawyer for the school board.
Southern gave me the impression he was ready to tell the school system exactly where to stuff that proposed agreement.
"Why not just ignore it," I suggested subversively. "It's only a draft. And the school-system documents you already have in hand should be more than enough to allow the work to go forward."
No way, said the city manager. At minimum he'd need to have the document reviewed by the city attorney, a private-sector type who billed the city by the hour. Then, assuming there was nothing objectionable in the document -- which was unlikely, he said -- he'd still want the city council to consider it.
I persuaded him to wait a day while I made some more phone calls.
I called Levine, who told me that, although he himself is not a lawyer, he had drafted the proposed agreement after learning from Johnny Brown, of the legal department, that the school board couldn't contract to have paving work done on the swale "without first having this sort of agreement."
I called Johnny Brown, who said the matter was really quite simple. Under Florida Statutes, Section 235.34, a school system in fact is permitted to spend its own money to improve a public right-of-way adjacent to a school provided that it does so "either by contract or by agreement."
I called Virginia Rosen. Once again it was past five o'clock, and once again she was about to rush out the door to her daily workout. I told her Levine's proposed agreement would kill our little project unless Southern could be assured, first thing in the morning, that he could safely disregard it. Rosen said she'd see what she could do.
The following morning, March 23, I spoke again with Southern. He said he'd shown Levine's proposal to the city attorney, who had needed only a few seconds to examine it. His response: No deal. Don't pave.
I decided I had to play my trump card -- Visiedo's thank-you note.
I faxed Rosen a letter with an "URGENT!!!" cover sheet and told her Miami Springs had been advised by its attorney to reject Levine's proposed agreement. If she didn't want our pothole project scuttled, she or another official of equal rank must immediately advise Southern, in writing, that he could ignore the Levine "draft" and proceed to pave as planned. I added:
"I hardly need to remind you or anyone else at Dade County Public Schools that Superintendent Visiedo (in his March 8 letter L2002 to me) already has thanked me 'for taking the time to express your gratitude for the work of Dade County Public Schools staff in responding to the safety concerns you raised regarding road conditions around Springview Elementary School.'
"I'd hate to write Mr. Visiedo another letter saying my gratitude was premature, or worse, entirely inappropriate.
Rosen phoned me before the afternoon was out. Neither of us mentioned the letter I'd faxed her that morning. She said she'd been able to replace Levine's proposed agreement with a two-paragraph "understanding" that would require only the signatures of Southern and Visiedo.
On March 24, Southern called. He'd made a few "minor" revisions to Rosen's proposed, two-paragraph "understanding." A secretary had typed his revised version onto official city stationery and had made several copies. Southern had signed one copy and faxed it to Visiedo. Then, "just in case anything went wrong," he'd signed a second copy and had dispatched both signed copies -- by courier -- to Visiedo's office.
The new "understanding" took the form of a letter from Southern to Visiedo: "It is my understanding that Dade County Public Schools (DCPS) would like the City to construct,at DCPS's sole expense, a 198' paved area within the existing swale located in the dedicated public right-of-way. This paved area will serve as a parent/bus drop-off facility for Springview Elementary School.
"The city has no objection to this use and construction and will be able to accommodate Dade County Public Schools' request during the District's spring break (April 5-9). The cost for this work will be $3165. Kindly confirm this understanding by returning one of these signed letters to my attention and we will proceed to schedule the work to be accomplished."
Beneath the text were spaces for two signatures: "APPROVED: Dodd A. Southern, City Manager," and "APPROVED: Octavio J. Visiedo, Superintendent of Schools."
Two days later, on March 26, I made a last round of phone calls in search of assurances that all of the bureaucratic potholes had been filled. Two crucial questions were uppermost in my mind: Had the superintendent ever added his own signature to the city manager's signature, at the bottom of that two-paragraph letter of understanding? Had a copy of that letter, bearing both signatures, ever been returned to the city manager, who wouldn't start the paving job without it?
The answers turned out to be "yes" to the first question and "no" to the second.
Three copies of the city manager's letter of understanding had been sent to the school-system's downtown offices A one by fax, and two more by courier later the same day. And though Rosen's subordinates had quickly obtained Visiedo's signature on the faxed copy, they were still waiting for his signature on the original copies. They had not yet complied with Southern's request that he receive a copy bearing both signatures because they didn't want to seal the pothole deal with a flimsy, curly, messy sheet of fax paper.
"Could you do me a little favor?" I asked one of them. "Could you fax Southern a copy of the fax copy that actually has both signatures?"
A few hours later I called Southern to ask whether Visiedo had signed and returned the crucial document that would end my quest.
"You won't believe this," Southern said. "It arrived on my fax machine just a few minutes ago. I wonder what held it up." What held it up was a school system that has little if any reason to boast about its "responsiveness" or "customary efficiency."
To be sure, the pothole problem eventually was solved. Miami Springs started work in front of Springview on April 5, and completed the job on April 9.
But that little problem was solved only because it prompted a pushy parent to launch a cockeyed crusade that caught and corrected the bureaucratic bungles. Along the way, I'd learned that we have a school system in which a principal apparently would rather stand in the rain than ask his superiors for a little paving job.
A system that unblushingly admits it prefers not to use its own employees and contractors for a little paving job because that could double -- or triple -- the cost.
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A system in which a little paving job -- peformed by another government agency -- can require the active participation of a score of school officials, including two in-house attorneys, two department directors, an assistant superintendent, an associate superintendent, and the superintendent himself.
The school system, putting on its best face, proved it was all but incapable of solving a minor pothole problem. And that made me wonder how the Dade system, which normally escapes serious scrutiny, might deal with more complicated problems.
If a school system that's putting its best face forward can't be trusted with a $3165 paving job, how can it be trusted with a one-billion-dollar capital improvements program? With a three-billion-dollar annual budget? With 38,000 employees? With the education of 300,000 kids? With the education of one of my kids?
Our school system is not unlike those Eastern European systems that recently collapsed from their own bureaucratic weight. In that kind of system, only a fool would believe that the paving of potholes might pave the way for any real reform. In that kind of system, you eventually learn to struggle not for reform but for revolution.