Plans for downtown charter school face new hurdle
By Catherine Lackner
A new obstacle has surfaced in the Downtown Development Authority's campaign to acquire land for a charter school in downtown Miami.
The land on which the school is planned, a lot southwest of the City of Miami police station at 400 NW Second Ave., is owned by Miami-Dade County and cannot be leased directly to Charter Schools USA, board member Matthew Gorson told fellow authority directors last week.
Instead, a tangled path needs to be taken if Charter Schools USA, which the authority has chosen to run the school, is to obtain a lease on the site. The land is now leased to the City of Miami for governmental use only as part of a 1996 lease that has 25 years remaining.
In order for the school to proceed, both Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami must approve a sublease to the downtown authority, which will then lease the site to a 501 (c3) corporation specially created for the charter school. That corporation will lease the land to Charter Schools USA.
Patti Allen, authority executive director, said she has requested the matter be placed on the Miami-Dade County Commission agenda no later than the second meeting in July. After that, the Miami City Commission will review it.
The project is expected to cost $6 million, of which about $5 million will be financed, Mr. Gorson said. After the lease transfer, the authority would enter into a management agreement with Charter Schools USA, which would run the school for a percentage of revenues.
"This pro forma needs to be reviewed," Mr. Gorson cautioned. "They haven't given me a budget."
All income projections have been based on 95% enrollment, he said, but "what happens if the school fails? Is the City of Miami willing to take the risk?"
"Somebody will have a use" for the land, said authority Chairman and Miami City Commissioner Wifredo Gort. He said crowding, not low enrollment, is the reality in most schools. He asked that the city be given first right of refusal, however, if the property changes hands because the school fails.
There are now about 15 charter schools open in the county.
It's not clear whether the legal wrangling to obtain the land will delay the school's projected opening in August 2002.
The charter school site won out over two other locations the authority originally 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 a riverfront location.
Next, authority members looked to a vacant lot owned by the Miami Parking Authority adjoining the Riverside Center office building at 444 SW Second Ave. But it was decided that that site's location was inferior to the property adjacent to the police station, which became the final choice.
Charter Schoolhouse Developers, winner of the bidding to run the downtown academy, also manages the successful charter school at Ryder System Inc. in West Dade and another in Coral Springs, Joaquin G. Aviņķ, president of the firm, said. If it comes to fruition, the downtown campus would be run along similar lines to those schools.
While the school would be under the jurisdiction of the Miami-Dade County School District, its management could be tailored by Charter Schools USA, an affiliate of Charter Schoolhouse Developers, to meet the specific needs and requirements of parents whose children are enrolled.
Money for teachers' 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 K-5th grade students, Mr. Aviņķ said.
"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."