Downtown charter school faces new hurdle of plans for nearby parcel
By Catherine Lackner
All that stands in the way of opening a charter school in downtown Miami is approval by the county's school district, which could come as early as this month or as late as next fall. Either way, it's not expected to delay the projected opening in August 2002.
"Everything is great and moving along according to schedule," said Richard Ramos, director of government relations and public affairs for Charter Schools USA, an affiliate of Charter Schoolhouse Developers, which is to manage the school for Miami's Downtown Development Authority.
A new factor, however, could add controversy to the site chosen for the school. The state is considering moving a juvenile courthouse to within a block of that parcel, which is directly south of Miami's police station, 400 NW Second Ave.
State officials confirmed they want to move the juvenile courthouse from 3300 NW 27th Ave.
"The site is unknown. It's premature to talk about it," said Judge Joe Farina, chief judge of the 11th Judicial Circuit, "but having it downtown would be best."
He acknowledged that the site, owned by Miami-Dade County and one block south of where the charter school would go, is under consideration.
"There's an excess of parking capacity there," he said, and its proximity to other state office buildings and family service agencies would provide "one-stop shopping" for parents and children in the juvenile justice system. The location is also convenient to the Miami-Dade County Government Center at 111 NW First Ave. as well as to Metrorail and Metromover stations.
"We're at the very beginning stages," Judge Farina said. He estimated the move would take at least two years.
Detention and dependency cases would be heard at the courthouse, he said. It would not serve as a jail or the point from which juveniles would be released from custody, Judge Farina said.
"We need to take a look at this," said Miami-Dade Commissioner and Downtown Development Authority board member Jimmy Morales. "The city already has enough problems."
Judge Farina said he welcomes scrutiny. "It's good for people to know us, and for us to know who some of our neighbors will be."
The charter school site, nicknamed the "dust bowl," won out over two others the authority considered when planning the school last summer.
The authority first had its eye on a plot adjacent to Bayside Marketplace because it offered easy access to the central business district. But its waterfront location, which raised liability and cost issues, prompted the authority to scrutinize the proposed site.
Next, authority members had also looked at a vacant lot owned by the Miami Parking System adjoining the Riverside Center, 444 SW Second Ave. But it was decided that site was inferior to the one the board had originally ranked third - the property adjacent to the police station.
Though the Miami Police had plans to use the parcel, "there's plenty of land there," said city Commissioner Willy Gort, who chairs the development authority's board. "Maybe the charter school can help the police department."
There are now about 15 charter schools in the county.
Time was of the essence when the project first was last summer, said Joaquin G. Aviņķ of Charter Schoolhouse Developers. The authority rushed to meet an Oct. 1 deadline because "any delay results in the opening being delayed for a full year, since it is not an option to open a charter school after the school year has commenced."
"We don't want to own the school. We don't want the liability," Mr. Gort said when the application was filed. The development authority agreed to be responsible for the application and moving the project forward.
Charter Schoolhouse, winner of bidding to run the downtown academy, also manages a charter school at Ryder System Inc. in West Dade and another in Coral Springs, Mr. Aviņķ said. If it comes to fruition, the downtown school would be run along similar lines.
While the charter would be part of the county school system, its management could be tailored by the firm to meet the specific needs and requirements of parents whose children are enrolled.
Money for teacher salaries and other operational costs would be allocated by the Miami-Dade school system based on how many students enroll. The downtown school would serve 500 kindergarten to fifth-grade pupils, Mr. Aviņķ said.
Plans call for the Downtown Development Authority to create a nonprofit organization to run the school and be responsible for securing the site.
"In order for the project to be economically viable, the site must be made available to us by the DDA," Mr. Aviņķ said in a letter to Ms. Allen. "The DDA needs to acquire control of the site.
"We've always said we wanted to be facilitators for this," development authority board member Carlos Migoya said when the application was filed.
"We've got to drive the process," agreed board member Jack Peeples.
"The whole idea is to be flexible," Mr. Aviņķ said. "The education system overall is in the midst of a major transformation. Charter schools are on the forefront."