A Room of One's Own

No question about it: Manty Sabates Morse's office isn't what you'd call palatial. Her austerely appointed quarters, on the seventh floor of the Dade County Public School Board's administration building at 1450 NE Second St. in downtown Miami, measure twelve by seventeen feet. That's enough space for a desk, a cabinet, a little sofa, and two chairs for visitors, plus a small work area for Morse's assistant, separated from her office by a movable curtainlike partition. If Morse wants to meet with a group, she must take them down the hall to a conference room, which is likely to be occupied.

Is this any way for a board member of the nation's fourth-largest school district to transact county business? "We just do not have room, even for storage," protests Morse, who was elected to the school board last fall. "We don't have a closet. We don't have anything! I've only been here for five months and you should see all the paperwork -- my drawers are filling up already."

Though the seventh floor underwent extensive renovations two years ago (largely to make room for a board that last year was expanded from seven members to nine), Morse and several of her colleagues believe the remodeling job didn't go far enough. And they may very well get what they want: Plans have been drawn up to undertake a second renovation, which is to feature eight individual office suites, each with its own conference room and a private work space for each aide. The project would require tearing down walls and erecting new ones and would displace several administrators who now share the seventh floor with the board.

Not everyone, however, thinks the remodeling is a good idea.
Chief among the opponents is G. Holmes Braddock. The long-time board member says the first he heard of the renovation plan was in March, when Bhagwan Gupta, executive director for the school board's architectural services, showed it to him and asked for his comments. When he found out what was afoot, Braddock says, he was furious. Though the project was to involve a fair chunk of taxpayers' money, the public would have no say about it.

Under state law, the school board can arrange for a construction project without putting it out for competitive bids, if the price tag is below $200,000. Such projects are brought up at board meetings on so-called consent agendas and voted on without discussion. "This was just going to be done," Braddock fumes. "It wouldn't come out of our budget, it would never see the light of day. We would have spent several hundred thousand dollars and the public wouldn't have known about it."

Though school system officials would not disclose the estimated cost of the proposed renovation, Braddock believes it would be at least $250,000; other knowledgeable sources put the figure closer to $500,000.

Historically, Braddock has not been known as a champion of the state's Sunshine Law, which bars elected officials from discussing policy matters in private, but ever since the November election he has often found himself in the minority, and out of the loop. He vented his anger during the board's March 26 meeting, at which he insisted the matter be brought up for discussion and a vote. Fellow board member Dr. Michael Krop also criticized the plan, questioning the wisdom of such expenditures at a time when state legislators have accused the board of wasting money by being top-heavy with administrators. Another board member, Betsy Kaplan, also registered her disapproval: "We don't need to live in luxury," she declared.

They weren't the only ones to gripe. Betty Simbert, the board's student representative, wanted to know how members could contemplate spending money to make themselves comfortable when students are "sitting on top of each other" in overcrowded classrooms. Carlos Seales, president of the Dade PTA, echoed those sentiments, urging the board to consider putting covered walkways between portable classrooms instead of spending money to upgrade their own surroundings.

Braddock got his vote, but in the end he was outnumbered. On the recommendation of chairman Solomon Stinson, the board voted to have Dade County Schools Superintendent Roger Cuevas proceed with the remodeling plans and inform the board of the costs at a later date.

Stinson could not be reached for comment for this story, but at the meeting he was livid. He had ordered his aide to look into every decision the board had made about its offices since 1974, and he asserted that most of those had not been brought up for debate. To require such a move now, he argued, would amount to changing the rules. "If the voters of the district think that I'm acting improperly by requesting better space for them and others to come, then they'll vote me out next time!" he bellowed.

According to Stinson, the price tag of the March 1995 remodeling of the administration building has never been disclosed. That's because most of the work was done by in-house maintenance workers and companies already under contract to the school system to undertake small construction projects, says Paul Phillips, chief facilities officer for the county's public schools. According to sources in Phillips's department, because board policy allows for such an arrangement only for construction projects that cost less than $200,000, the work was budgeted as if it were several small separate tasks. Phillips estimates the total price tag for the reconstruction of three floors at about a million dollars.

Braddock says that the lack of public discussion about the 1995 renovation work was justified, because the school district had no choice but to build additional offices for new members. The recent proposal should be made public, he argues, because it's being done only to make board members more comfortable.

Instead of discussing the matter at a public meeting, some board members privately informed Deputy Superintendent Henry Fraind that they needed more space. Fraind then told Bhagwan Gupta to sketch preliminary plans. "Nothing was ever formal," Fraind says. "We weren't on a set schedule. After New Year's sometime we said, 'Let's see if we can assess the needs and see what we are looking at.'"

Fraind also defends the staff decision to separate the 1995 office renovation into smaller projects or jobs, thereby making it difficult to determine the total cost of the work. "We're allowed to do it, and the case is closed on that," Fraind says. "We're operating within the law, and we don't have to go beyond that."

The proposed re-renovation, should it take place, is probably months away. But one official for Dade County Schools already has a new office. Gupta was relocated from the main administration building to an office in River Center on NW Seventh Street. Among school administrators, such a move is generally considered a kick downstairs, out of the main loop of authority. Fraind says the furor over Gupta's design had nothing to do with the transfer, which was already in the works. But sources in Paul Phillips's department dispute that claim, and neither Phillips nor Fraind have paperwork to back it up. Gupta was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

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