Key Biscayne Paying County $9 Million to Send 1,100 Rich Kids to MAST Academy

Maritime and Science Technology (MAST) Academy is one of Miami's best public schools. Each year, the magnet on the Rickenbacker Causeway draws 560 kids from across Dade and turns them into aspiring doctors, scientists, and engineers. Now, however, cash-strapped Miami-Dade County Public Schools appear ready to sell that small-school soul for $9 million.

That's how much the Village of Key Biscayne is offering towards an expansion project in exchange for sending 1,100 of its students to MAST. The plan would triple the size of the school, skirt its lottery system, and cost the county at least another $9 million. Parents, teachers, and former students tell New Times they hate the idea, but the School Board appears ready to pass it tomorrow night anyway.

"I can't believe they are going to turn over the school to the affluent residents of Key Biscayne in return for $9 million," says former student Dan Wehking. "It will really destroy what MAST is all about."

Wehking, an attorney, says he discovered the plan over the weekend on Facebook. "I haven't heard anybody say it's a good idea," he says. "Everyone who hears about this has been upset about it."

Miami-Dade Public Schools says the expansion won't hurt the quality of education on offer at MAST, but it will reduce overcrowding in Key Biscayne schools.

Under the proposal, the high school will be tripled in size. It will continue to draw the same number (560) of students from around Miami-Dade, but because it will be opened to middle school students, the number of Miami-based students per year will likely drop. That means increased competition for the school, which already runs on a lottery system.

At the same time as competition increases for Miami students, no less than 1,100 middle and high school students will be selected from Key Biscayne as part of the agreement.

In return, Key Biscayne will provide $18 million in financing for the school expansion, including a $9 million contribution and another $9 million in loans to the county. It's unclear what will happen if things go over budget.

If approved, the first phase will begin this fall. Up to 10 "portable units" will be dropped on "an open green space area" near the school to house the new students, according to the agenda item.

Parents, teachers, and students have all been blindsided by the news. Most of them didn't learn about the massive changes until late last week, after the official school year had already ended. And those who spoke to New Times all said the plan seemed more like a shotgun wedding between a broke county and a rich island than a sound school strategy.

"This is not an issue of overcrowding," said Michael Bax, the father of a MAST student, in a letter to the School Board that he shared with New Times. "It is a desire to have a local school for a particular

prosperous district that has failed through timely planning to deliver one in the past."

Even Joseph Zawodny, a chemistry teacher who helped found MAST back in 1990, says the expansion is a bad idea.

"This is not right," says the 66-year-old, who retired last year but still helps out at the school three times a week. "There are kids that I know that have to travel two hours to get to MAST. Now all of a sudden we are going to become a sort of community school for kids from Key Biscayne, all for the donation of $9 million?"

Zawodny says MAST grew out of something called the Inner City Marine Project, which was designed to expose underprivileged kids to the wonders of oceanography. "Kids from Overtown lived three miles away and didn't even know that there was an ocean," he says. They would arrive asking if it was true that the sea was salty, but leave four years later on the path to becoming scientists.

He worries that the Key Biscayne invasion will turn MAST into an "impersonal factory school." The quality of education might not drop, but the school will lose it's "charisma and character," he says.

"I don't have an axe to grind. I don't have a vendetta," Zawodny insists. "The fact is I put my heart and soul into making that school happen. I saw kids that flourished from nothing. And to see it change like this is not good, it's not fair to the other kids." He argues that if the school has to be expanded, Key Biscayne residents shouldn't get preferential treatment.

The expansion plan will be discussed tomorrow at 5 p.m. at MAST and 7 p.m. at the Key Biscayne Village Council Chambers.

The Miami-Dade School Board will vote on the idea on Wednesday night, but if a statement sent to New Times is any indication, the Faustian bargain is a fait a ccompli:

It is estimated that over 1,000 of the Key Biscayne school-age residents do not currently attend Miami-Dade County public schools. Many parents elect other options for their children because they are not able to enter rigorous public school programs with limited availability of seats, such as MAST Academy. This makes the current proposal an excellent way for our financially challenged school district to better serve the needs of parents and students, expand instructional programs offered at MAST Academy and capture additional FTE revenue. Key Biscayne's willingness to support the project with $18 million worth of financing, including a contribution of $9 million toward construction, shows the Village's commitment to high-quality public education for Key Biscayne residents and highlights its faith in the current administration of Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.